Plagiarism FAQ

How many of the author’s words can I use before I risk committing plagiarism?
There is no specific number of the author’s words you can use before you risk committing plagiarism. Chances are, if you’re asking this question, you’re relying too heavily on sources and should think more deeply on your own about your topic. Use your sources more selectively: choose key concepts, or quote phrases or sentences from the source in support of your claim when something is well said. You could also quote to represent the opposing view accurately. However, if the source is mostly useful not for its concise wording but for the information it provides, paraphrase the information in your own words, introducing the paraphrase by crediting the author and ending with a footnote.
Can I use the author’s sentence structure and just substitute synonyms for the author’s words?
If you’re looking to insert synonyms into an author’s original sentence structure, you’re still relying too heavily on the source. Copying the sentence structure and changing a few words may mean that you have not fully digested the content of what you're reading. In many cases, this approach would be considered a form of plagiarism. Instead of focusing on individual words, focus on the core meaning of the original sentence, leaving out all the extra details, and concentrate on stating that core meaning in your own words, as if explaining them to your friend. In this way, you will successfully “maintain your own voice.”
What if I can’t remember where I read or heard about a particular idea?
If you cannot remember where you heard an idea or read a quotation, don’t panic. If you have learned about the idea or quote from an everyday conversation or in email with a friend, pastor, or professor, you may cite that person in a footnote, but it is not necessary to include an entry for it in the bibliography. If you remember a quotation, try to look up the quotation, and omit it if it cannot be verified.
Should I try to cite sources when stating that ideas everyone knows and accepts?
If you are paraphrasing information from a source—for example, a commentary—that cites other sources for support, you only have to cite the source you are consulting, but focus on the original words and ideas of that source’s author. If it is necessary to mention “Author B,” with whom the source’s author is interacting, in order to make sure the reader accurately understands, you may mention “Author B” when you introduce the quote: Interacting with Jones, Brown asserts, “. . . .”¹² Avoid treating a source as a one-stop shop, from which you will gather many details to support your exegetical claims. Instead, if you want to use information or quotation that is reprinted in a source, look up the information or quotation in the original, so that you can understand and fairly represent its meaning in its original context. If the original source is inaccessible, you may use the form for citing “One Source Quoted in Another,” shown in the Citation and Formatting Guide.
What should I do if I find other sources cited by the author to support the view I want to cite? Do I have to cite all of his sources?
If you are paraphrasing information from a source—for example, a commentary—that cites other sources for support, you only have to cite the source you are consulting, but focus on the original words and ideas of that source’s author. If it is necessary to mention “Author B,” with whom the source’s author is interacting, in order to make sure the reader accurately understands, you may mention “Author B” when you introduce the quote: Interacting with Jones, Brown asserts, “. . . .”¹² Avoid treating a source as a one-stop shop, from which you will gather many details to support your exegetical claims. Instead, if you want to use information or quotation that is reprinted in a source, look up the information or quotation in the original, so that you can understand and fairly represent its meaning in its original context. If the original source is inaccessible, you may use the form for citing “One Source Quoted in Another,” shown in the Citation and Formatting Guide.
When I quote an author, may I make minor changes to or leave words out of the quotation?
Minor changes may be made to blend the quotation into the grammar of your sentence, help the reader understand pronoun references it contains, or focus the reader on certain important information. These changes must be clearly indicated, and the original meaning must be strictly preserved. Indicate additions by placing them in brackets [ ]. If you leave words or phrases out, you must use ellipsis points correctly: use three ellipsis points, each one separated by a space, to show words left out within a sentence. When you leave out full sentences or begin with words in one sentence and finish with words from another, use four ellipsis points. See Turabian, 9th ed., pages 363–369, for a completed discussion of how to modify quotations. Machen reminds us that “Modern liberalism . . . is at any rate no longer merely an academic matter.”¹ ¹ J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 15.
May I add italics to words within a quote?
You may add italics to emphasize a point, but this must be noted in one of two ways: (1) immediately following the italicized word, insert “emphasis added” in brackets; or (2) in the footnote, following the page number and a semicolon, insert “emphasis added.” The church should fight to defend the truth of Scripture and to dedicate itself to “a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it [emphasis added] when once it is found.”¹ The church should fight to defend the truth of Scripture and to dedicate itself to “a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it when once it is found.”² ¹ Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 15. ² Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 15; emphasis added.
How can I blend quotations into my text?
Quotes of fewer than five lines may be introduced with the name of the author and a verb such as writes, claims, or argues.¹ Concerning liberalism, Machen claims, “its attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School ‘lesson-helps,’ by the pulpit, and by the religious press.”² You may also integrate the quotation into your sentence, making sure the author’s wording fits your sentence structure grammatically, that it does not interrupt the flow of your thought, and that pronouns have correct and clear antecedents. See Turabian, 9th ed., pages 78–79 and 359–361 for more details on how to blend quotations into text. We must consider the fact that an “attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School ‘lesson-helps,’ by the pulpit, and by the religious press.”³ ¹ For a list of other verbs that can be used to introduce a quotation, see the CTW handout “Blending Quotations.” ² Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 15. ³ Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 15.
What should I do if my quotation is long?
If the quote is five lines or longer, you may use a block quotation. Single space and indent all of the lines you are quoting so that they line up with the indentation of the first line of the paragraphs. You should not use double quotation marks at the beginning or end of a block quote because the indentation and single spacing indicate that the words are quoted from another source. You should, however, insert a footnote at the end of the block quotation. See Turabian, 9th ed., pages 361–262 for more information on formatting. The following excerpt from a student paper illustrates the correct formatting: Many theologians have buckled under the pressure of liberal Christianity, but Machen was not among them. He called for people to live out a more vibrant Christian witness. Note his treatment of the topic in the very first chapter of Christianity and Liberalism:

Modern liberalism in the Church, whatever judgment may be passed upon it, is at any rate no longer merely an academic matter. . . . On the contrary its attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School “lesson-helps,” by the pulpit, and by the religious press. If such an attack be unjustified, the remedy . . . in a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it when once it is found.¹

¹ Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 15.