80. How to Paraphrase

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Write paraphrases without looking at the source text, and avoid synonym-substitution.

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DEFINITION AND USE OF PARAPHRASE

Paraphrase means changing the wording of a text without changing its meaning, while a paraphrase (with countable a) is the new wording created (see 14. Countable Noun Meanings 1). The main use of paraphrase in formal writing is to report (with a suitable academic reference) what another writer has said. This can also be done by quotation, but that is less common, being preferred only when there is a good reason for keeping the original wording, for example because it is clever or very concise or ambiguous (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing and 127. When to Use Indirect Speech).

Successful paraphrase has two major requirements: keeping faithful to the original meaning and changing the words in the right way. This post offers advice in both of these areas.

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THE DANGER OF CHANGING THE MEANING

The most important requirement for preserving the exact meaning of an original text is to properly comprehend it. This seems obvious, but is sometimes forgotten because paraphrase is generally thought of as a writing skill rather than a reading one. All of the reading posts within this blog (see the “Reading Posts” tab above) are useful towards this end, but one that I would single out for special attention is 15. Half-Read Sentences. The key point made there is the way adding a word to a text, or removing one, can drastically alter what the text is saying. This means that almost every word in a sentence is important, and must have a corresponding meaning in a paraphrase.

It is also important to prevent our expectations about a topic from blinding us to what a source text actually says. Expectations have a very powerful effect on our perceptions. Consider the following sentence and its supposed paraphrase:

(a) Physical strength differs in men and women.

(b) Men are physically stronger than women.

Sentence (b), the attempted paraphrase, speaks of something that is not present in (a): the greater physical strength of men. All that sentence (a) mentions is a difference of physical strength, leaving it unclear whether men are stronger than women or women are stronger than men. The likelihood is that someone paraphrasing (a) with (b) has done so because the topic of gender strength always triggers thoughts of greater male strength, and these thoughts have blinded them to what (a) actually says.

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STEPS IN PARAPHRASING

The main paraphrase steps might be listed as (1) Read and understand, (2) Remove the source text, (3) Try to recall what has been understood, and (4) Put the recalled message – not the words – into writing. The main problem is escaping from the original words.

A key factor is the length of the original text. If it is great, the exact wording will almost certainly disappear at the recall stage, since remembering its message will take up all of our mental capacity¹. Even if we make notes on a long text to help us remember it, we should still be able to derive a good paraphrase from them because notes are of their nature so different from continuous prose.

On the other hand, if the original text is very short, remembering its wording is much more likely. It is the problem of paraphrasing still-remembered wording that I particularly want to focus on here, not least because suggesting a solution involves discussing grammar and vocabulary. The starting point is the importance of not simply replacing individual words with suitable synonyms.

There are two good reasons for avoiding synonym-substitution. The first is that it does not prove comprehension of the source text: anyone can use a translation dictionary to find a synonym of a particular word in a text they do not understand. The second problem with synonym-substitution is that it easily results in inaccurate paraphrase or incorrect-sounding English, because synonyms are rarely exactly equivalent to each other (see 5. Repetition with Synonyms and 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words).

True paraphrase can be achieved by changing the structure of the text, rather than individual words. As the word “structure” suggests, this is more about grammar than vocabulary. Grammar structures can be paraphrased just as easily as words. This point is made in various other Guinlist posts, for example 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs,  46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You and 145. Highlighting with “What” Sentences. Consider the following sentence and possible paraphrase:

(c) Jazz has always been popular.

(d) The popularity of jazz is constant.

The grammar of (c) is dramatically changed in (d): jazz is no longer the subject of the verb, but clarifies the new subject popularity; this new subject, a noun, corresponds to the adjective popular, which comes right at the end of (c); the adverb always has been changed to the differently-positioned adjective constant; and the tense of the main verb has been changed from present perfect has been to present simple is.

The above grammar changes are in two basic areas: word class and sentence position (tense changes are not so common). This insight gives a clue to a simple but effective paraphrase strategy: start with a meaning that does not start the original – like popular(ity) in (d). Once this is done, the rest of the paraphrase sentence ought to follow quite easily. Here is a practice exercise that will hopefully show this to be true.

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PRACTICE EXERCISE (SENTENCE-LENGTH PARAPHRASE)

Each question in this exercise gives you one complete sentence and the beginnings of three paraphrases to complete. Answers are suggested afterwards.
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1. Physics and Chemistry have certain similarities.
(a) Physics is …
(b) Certain …
(c) There are …
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2. Very few people live for more than 100 years.
(a) Living …
(b) The number …
(c) The human life span…
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3. It is many years since the moon landing.
(a) Since …
(b) The last …
(c) There has not …
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4. The greatest challenge in note-taking is identifying main ideas.
(a) There is no greater …
(b) Note-taking …
(c) It is particularly …
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Suggested Answers (alternatives are possible)
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1(a) Physics is similar to Chemistry in certain respects (not “aspects” – see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2).
1(b) Certain similarities exist between Physics and Chemistry.
1(c) There are certain similarities between Physics and Chemistry.
2(a) Living beyond 100 years is very unusual.
2(b) The number of people who live beyond 100 years is very small.
2(c) The human life span very rarely exceeds 100 years.
3(a) Since the moon landing, many years have passed.
3(b) The moon landing happened many years ago.
3(c) There has not been a moon landing for many years.
4(a) There is no greater challenge in note-taking than identifying main ideas.
4(b) Note-taking presents no greater challenge than identifying main ideas.
4(c) It is particularly challenging in note-taking to identify main ideas. (see 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb)

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¹See Bransford, J.D. and Franks, J.J. (1971).  The Abstraction of Linguistic Ideas. Cognitive Psychology 2, 331-350.

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