Why Am I Not Plagiarizing?

The slippy, squirmful, wriggling definition of plagiarism attracts me. What is plagiarism and what isn’t? It’s a weird dotted line that I know how to draw because I’ve been around it long enough, but where the boundaries rest elude and reveal. What’s inside? Quotations, research, figures, facts. What’s outside? What don’t I need to cite, and why not? The intellectual terrain teaming and swarming and sneaking around beyond the dotted line of protected property warrants exploration.

As a thought-project, I’ve been wondering why some borrowing isn’t plagiarism. Not because I want to condemn those activities, but because I think that dotted line and the grounds beyond it display things about our culture. After all, plagiarism is a relatively new concept; the boundaries weren’t drawn by God and they don’t come out of long, careful dialogue.

And, what don’t I cite? Form.

I’ve been reading about writing, lately, and it’s generally accepted that, when a good writer reads, she steals artistic methods and word arrangements. Now, whenever I find myself saying “I like the way it feels when I read that”, I copy the clause, phrase, paragraph down and try to use the arrangement later. Steinbeck avoids adjectives, discriminating his choice of verbs and nouns, instead. And, I borrow it. Vibrantly, Noden opens sentences with adverbs. And, I borrow it. Alexander Pope uses his structure to underscore his meaning. And I borrow it.

I borrow, but I don’t cite. Not only am I not required to cite form that I copy, style guides don’t even make it possible. Why don’t verbal structures and crafting techniques warrant citation? They take as much effort to create as content does, they develop from the unique voice of the author, but they aren’t protected as property the way content is.

Don’t worry – I’m not trying to create a world where there are even more red marks on college papers! But, grateful as I am to be able to be able to borrow form so easily, I wonder if the fact that form isn’t protected the way content is shows what our culture values and what it ignores.

Is form invisible to our culture?

The things a culture ignores reveal unconscious agreements and, often, thoughtless acceptance. Why does our culture watch content closely and analyzes it in minute, careful motions, but lets form freely frolic (or prowl?) off the radar? Any writer or artist knows that form matters. There’s something about a well-phrased sentence or line that strikes the reader or listener with awe and even unquestioning silence. How many amazing things have been said badly that I’ve ignored? How many terrible ideas have been said well that I’ve memorized and had trouble ridding myself of?

Maybe we don’t protect form because citation is a way of establishing authority, and form doesn’t require authority. Or, perhaps we let it slide because it would be hard to enforce a rule protecting form. I’m not concerned with the citation side. I’m just curious about why form is communally owned, and content is individually protected.

Image via Flickr.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    One practical suggestion. Form is necessary (there’s no such thing as a formless sentence), and there are only so many ways to structure a sentence, so you are inevitably going to copy someone’s form. Content is practically infinite, and it’s not necessary in the sense that you don’t have to use particular content the way you have to use form. This is overly simplistic, of course, but mostly correct I think.

    By the way, I love that you “read to write” and that you write down phrases that strike you. It’s a wonderful habit. I take my pocket moleskine with me everywhere. :)

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