In other words…
What I meant was...
You’ve probably said or heard each of these phrases many times in your life. What the phrases have in common is that they set up, or introduce, paraphrased text. We paraphrase constantly in conversations without giving it a second thought.
For writing, however, paraphrasing can be challenging. It doesn’t have to be. Understanding what paraphrasing is, why it’s a useful skill, and how to do it well can take the challenge out of paraphrasing and make it a more user-friendly skill.
What Is a Paraphrase?
A paraphrase (noun) is a restatement of someone else’s words into other words. If you’re reading the paraphrase, you’re reading someone else’s rephrasing of the original.
To paraphrase (verb) is to rephrase a statement into your own words.
When you paraphrase, you are essentially borrowing someone else’s ideas and putting them into your own words. Since you’re borrowing and not creating those ideas, be certain to give credit to the original source.
In conversation, we paraphrase constantly. Think about how stilted conversations would become if we could only quote each other word-for-word rather than paraphrase.
How Do We Paraphrase in Speech?
Let's set the scene for this example.
Mom to babysitter: They can watch an hour of TV before bed and have some ice cream. Make sure they brush their teeth for two minutes. They can read for a half-hour after getting under the covers. Just make sure they turn their lights out after that.
Babysitter: Ok. Are any shows off-limits?
Mom: You should avoid anything too scary or they might not fall asleep.
(Later...an hour before bed)
Kids: Oh man—we only have an hour until bedtime. Now it’s too late to do anything fun.
Babysitter: No it’s not, your mom said “They can watch an hour of TV before bed and have some ice cream. Make sure they brush their teeth for two minutes. They can read for a half-hour after getting under the covers. Just make sure they turn their lights out after that.”
Kids: Cool! What should we watch?
Babysitter: Your mom said, “You should avoid anything too scary or they might not fall asleep.” (End scene).
Now, kudos to the attentive babysitter for her perfect auditory memory. She’d be a great courtroom witness. But her perfect repetition doesn’t go naturally with the flow of the conversation.
Let’s see the answer in a paraphrased version:
Babysitter: No it’s not! Your mom said you’re allowed to have ice cream while you watch TV—for an entire hour as long as it’s not something too scary that will keep you up. Then after you brush your teeth, you can read for 30 minutes until lights out!
See the difference? The babysitter maintained mom’s message but conveyed it in a much more natural, conversational format. Paraphrasing allows us to maintain a message but rephrase it to match the style and context for which we borrow that message.
Because we do it so much, that kind of verbal paraphrasing becomes second nature—most of us don’t need guidance in retelling someone what another has said.
Why Do We Paraphrase in Writing?
Paraphrasing feels a little less natural when we write—so why bother?
If you’re writing a research-based essay or article, why not just quote word-for-word and put quotation marks around the borrowed information (along with the citation, of course)?
There are several reasons:
To ensure flow with grammar and style. Sometimes, the original wording doesn’t fit the grammatical structure and style of your writing.
To condense information and make it more concise.
To clarify or simplify the information (this differs from making something more concise. Sometimes, more explanation is needed in order to clarify. Paraphrases can be longer than the original text.
To avoid linking one quote after another; quote “strings” are tedious, generally lacking in flow and style.
What Is an Example of Paraphrasing in an Essay?
For context: This example comes from a paper I wrote about true crime and how the genre has changed through the centuries.
The segment includes a discussion of Joe Berlinger’s Netflix documentary, Conversation with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and what purpose it served (or didn’t).
The excerpt from my paper paraphrases this original excerpt from Matt Zoller Seitz’ article in Vulture:
There were at least 30 other stories that Berlinger could’ve told: those of Bundy’s victims. More, even, had the documentary chosen to expand the stories of his childhood friends, or the detectives and patrol officers who were traumatized by their investigation of his crimes.
Excerpt from my paper (the paraphrased segment is highlighted):
And, though praised for its editing and structure overall, critics noted Berlinger’s series walked “just” on the right side of encouraging and even glamorizing fascination with the killer, by treating “Bundy as a horrifying void of a man whose true emotional interior remains just out of sight”.
The time afforded by the platform could have been used to tell dozens of others stories: of Bundy’s victims first and foremost, but then of others whose lives were traumatized by him—friends, his family members, law enforcement officers on the case (Seitz).
You can see that I first quoted, then paraphrased from the Seitz source. In my paraphrase, I condensed the information from the original (the concepts were already pretty clear, so I didn’t need to simplify), and rephrased them to match my grammatical structure and style.
Notice that I did not change the original meaning and still gave credit to my source.
How Do I Paraphrase Text?
There are some practical steps you can follow to ensure skillful paraphrasing. It might take some practice at first. As you become more experienced with paraphrasing, you’ll notice that you follow these steps naturally.
Step 1: Determine the overall point of the text you want to paraphrase. Make sure you have a solid understanding of its meaning.
Step 2: Break down that text idea by idea.
Step 3: Rewrite those ideas in your own words; idea-by-idea, not word-by-word!
Step 4: Check your work: ensure what you’ve written makes sense.
Determine the Overall Point
If you don’t understand the main idea of the original text, your paraphrase will likely be illogical or a misrepresentation.
How can you rephrase ideas you don’t understand in the first place? How can you remain true to an original meaning if you don’t understand that meaning? Before you think about rephrasing, make sure you’ve got a handle on what the original text means.
Break Down the Original Text Idea-by-Idea (Not Word-by-Word)
Paraphrasing is translating someone else’s words into your words. If you were to translate a sentence from one language into another going word-by-word, you’d end up with nonsense.
The same thing happens when you paraphrase. You’re performing a translation of sorts. If you try to translate each word one at a time, you’ll end up with a paraphrase that reads more like a “word salad” than an intelligent rephrasing.
Why? Because when you isolate words, you take them out of their context. The meaning of a word can change based on its context, so respect that context. Keep ideas whole to keep the original meanings intact.
What Should I Avoid When Paraphrasing?
Here's what not to do.
Original Text: Life expectancy isn't set in stone: Both public policy and personal responsibility can tip the scales, experts said. (Craig Schneider, Newsday)
If I paraphrase that text word-by-word, I could end up with something like this:
Word-by-Word Paraphrase: Human existences are not put in rocks. The pair of non-private systems and individual duty can point the measures, professionals uttered.
I think we can agree that this is a failed paraphrase. It makes no sense. The original meaning is lost. Sure, I’ve got synonyms for each word, but I’ve also changed the forms of some words and ignored idioms (set in stone; tip the scales). And there is no need to change “experts said” to “professionals uttered.” It sounds silly!
How Do I Paraphrase Complex Text?
Here’s a demo and a test for you. Read the original text from the same Craig Schneider, Newsday article. Read through the breakdown of ideas and then choose the best paraphrase.
Life expectancy isn't set in stone: Both public policy and personal responsibility can tip the scales, experts said. Everyone can make choices that increase the odds of a longer life, said Cantor, of the Center for Socio-Economic Policy. Eating well, exercising, not smoking, getting enough sleep and staying in school are decisions made by each and every one of us, he said.
Step 1: What’s the overall point? There are things people can do or avoid to increase life expectancy.
Step 2: Break down idea-by-idea.
Life expectancy is not set in stone.
Public policy and personal responsibility tip scales—according to experts.
All can make the choice to increase the chance of a longer life.
Eating well, exercising, not smoking, getting good sleep, and staying in school are decisions made by each of us—according to Cantor (another expert).
Step 3: Rewrite—write the paraphrase.
Here’s your test! Read through each of the paraphrase options and evaluate them according to what a paraphrase should and should not do. Which one is the best?
|A Paraphrase Should||A Paraphrase Should NOT|
|Represent the original meaning accurately||Change the original meaning|
|Cover all of the ideas represented in the original||Add information or opinion|
|Make sense! Be written in clear language||Be a word-by-word translation|
|Increase or maintain clarity of the original meaning||Distort/confuse the original meaning|
A. The government and people themselves are responsible for their life expectancy.
B. If you eat organic food, avoid smoking, get 10 hours of sleep per night, and earn a college education you can increase your life expectancy. These are choices you can make that will determine how long you live no matter what other circumstances you face in life.
C. You can change your life expectancy with the choices you make.
D. People do have some control over their life expectancy. While public policies matter, experts say personal choices can also affect how long you live and that making healthy lifestyle choices about food, sleep, education, and smoking is up to each individual person.
Step 4: Check the Work.
Choice A: this version covers the first two ideas, but not the last two. The paraphrase doesn’t misrepresent the text, but is incomplete.
Choice B: this version includes some suspicious, specific details—details that are not part of and do not accurately represent the original text’s meaning.
Choice C: this version isn’t terrible, but it is very general and therefore incomplete. It doesn’t give enough information to convey the substance of the original text thoroughly.
Choice D: this version is the winner! The paraphrase maintains the meaning of the original text and represents all the important ideas in an understandable way.
Is Paraphrasing Plagiarism?
Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism as the act of using someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own.
Remember, when you paraphrase an original text, you must still credit the source of that original text. Changing a few words doesn’t make you the author or creator of that text.
Just as you would provide the source of a direct quote, provide the source of paraphrased information according to whatever style guide you’re following for your task (e.g. APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) or by including the source within the paraphrases itself (as I did in the first sentence of this section of the post).
If you don’t acknowledge that source, you’ve plagiarized, which has serious ethical and even legal implications.
ProWritingAid can help you keep your work plagiarism-free with its plagiarism checker and will never store or resell your work, as some other plagiarism checking services sometimes do.
Now that you’re a paraphrasing pro, have a little fun with the skill. Can you match the song lyrics to their respective paraphrase?
Paraphrased Song Lyrics:
Have a joyous anniversary of your entry into the world!
Don't get annoyed because someone else wants me. If you really wanted me, you should have proposed.
Initially, I was extremely scared. The idea of living without you seemed impossible. Then I really considered how badly you had treated me and I felt myself get tougher—more powerful.
Mom! I just shot someone and killed him! I’ve ruined my life when it was just beginning!
We’re racing through snowy fields, laughing as we’re pulled by a horse-drawn sleigh with no top!
Original Song Lyrics:
A. At first I was afraid, I was petrified/ Kept thinkin' I could never live without you by my side/ But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong/ And I grew strong/ And I learned how to get along
(Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”)
B. Mamaaa/ Just killed a man/ Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger/ Now he's dead/ Mamaaa, life had just begun/ But now I've gone and thrown it all away
(Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”)
C. Dashing through the snow/ In a one-horse open sleigh/ O'er the fields we go/ Laughing all the way.
(James Pierpoint, "Jingle Bells")
D. Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it/ If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it/ Don't be mad once you see that he want it/ If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it
(Beyonce, “Single Ladies”)
E. Happy Birthday to you!
(Mildred and Patty Hill, “Happy Birthday to You”)
Answers: 1-E; 2-D; 3-A; 4-B; 5-C