Paraphrasing & Summarising

Paraphrasing and summarising are techniques we can use to incorporate the ideas of another person into our own writing. With paraphrasing we include all the ideas in detail; with summarising we include only the main point or “gist”.

The skill of paraphrasing and summarising lies in the ability to write about someone else’s ideas in a way which is different from the original text, and yet which does not change the intended meaning, i.e., it is true to the intent of the source text. Whenever we paraphrase or summarise there must be an in-text citation to attribute the idea to its original author. This is because the idea is not your own even though you used your own words. Failing to cite someone else’s idea is a form of plagiarism.

Put simply: Paraphrasing and summarising involves the use of the ideas of another person by putting the ideas in your own words and telling the reader where you obtained the information.

Paraphrases and summaries

Let’s take an example to show the difference between paraphrases and summaries.

Suppose this is our target text:

  • The debate about Whorf’s ideas has, until now, been mostly conducted in the context of the psycholinguistic empirical research tradition which grew out of anthropological inquiry into the relationships between language and other aspects of culture in the 1940s and 1950s. *

(* from Penny Lee, The Whorf Theory Complex, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 1999, p. 27.)

Here is an example of a summary of that passage:

  • Lee (1999, p. 27) claims that Whorf’s work derived from research in language and culture between 1940 and 1960.

Here is an example of a paraphrase of that passage:

  • Our understanding of Whorf’s work developed mainly from studies in other areas. Some of these studies were about the connection between language and culture. These studies were done by anthropologists between 1940 and 1960. Whorf’s ideas have been looked at in terms of the scientific work done in psycholinguistics since then (Lee, 1999, p. 27).

There are a number of things to notice here:

  • The paraphrase contains all the details of the source text, written in different words. NB: Paraphrases are frequently longer than the source text.
  • The summary contains only the main point of the source text. The summary must be shorter than the source text.
  • Both the paraphrase and the summary contain an in-text citation showing where the idea is published. This is important no matter how much the wording has changed in the paraphrase/summary.

In-text citations for paraphrases and summaries

The in-text citation for a paraphrase or summary can have one of three forms.

  1. Author prominent: The citation comes before the information at the start of the sentence. e.g. ‘Sandford (2014) states that each paraphrase requires an in text citation’.
  2. Information prominent: The information comes before the author. e.g. ‘Each paraphrase requires an in text citation (Sandford, 2014)’.
  3. ‘Weak’ author: The information comes before a list of authors. e.g. ‘According to some writers, each paraphrase requires an in-text citation (Sandford, 2014; Pillings and Marquette, 2014)’.

These examples use the APA in-text format, but the techniques of using author or information prominence are applicable to all referencing systems.

Summarising in detail

A summary occurs when you wish to refer to a writer’s work in general without going into details. (For more details the reader can follow the citation to the original source) For example:

  • Research into psychopathic behaviours in managers (Andrews & Furniss, 2009) suggest that they spend more effort in manipulating people than in other aspects of management.

In this example, an entire research document has been summarised into a single sentence. Summarising is useful for condensing large amounts of work for revision purposes, or to keep track of research one might be doing in preparation for an essay or report.

To summarise effectively, make a list of the key noun phrases in the source text. For example, in our previous source text we have:

  • the debate about Whorf’s ideas
  • psycholinguistic empirical research tradition
  • anthropological inquiry into the relationships between language and other aspects of culture
  • the 1940s and 1950s.

Now decide on the key idea. In this case they key idea incorporates the elements in bold. Now change the words using synonyms where possible, join them into one sentence, and add a citation:

  • Whorf’s work
  • language and culture
  • between 1940 and 1960

Note that it sometimes hard to find synonyms for proper nouns (Whorf, language, culture), so these are best left as they are. In the case of decades of time one can provide an equivalent date range:

  • Lee (1999, p. 27) claims that Whorf’s work derived from research in language and culture between 1940 and 1960.

Paraphrasing in detail

Paraphrasing is used to demonstrate an understanding of concepts and theories of others and using these ideas to make a point in the context of an essay or report. A typical university assignment will have large amounts of paraphrased passages from various sources. The use of direct quotations should be limited.

A good paraphrase has several benefits:

  1. It will improve the clarity of the original writing by explaining complex ideas.
  2. It will improve the narrative flow of your writing by ordering the concepts to suit your paper and by improving the grammar.
  3. Relaying someone else’s idea in your own words demonstrates your understanding of it.

If the reader wants to check your paraphrase or read more about it, they can consult the citation provided.

So how do you paraphrase?

Similar to summarising, read the source and make a series of bullet points which cover every part of the original argument, discussion or idea. Pay attention to noun phrases in particular.

Read the original passage again to make sure you really do understand what has been written. Check your bullet points to ensure you have covered everything.

Put the original aside and—using the bullet points you wrote earlier—explain the idea to a friend or if you are alone read it out loud to yourself. Use this process to re-order the bullets into a format that suits your paper and the point you are emphasising. It may be the case that you use only one part of an author’s idea and not another part, and you are emphasising different things.

Five techniques can be used to put other people’s ideas into your own words:

  1. Using synonyms
  2. Varying the sentence patterns and use different parts of speech
  3. Changing or reversing the order of ideas
  4. Breaking long sentences into short sentences or changing the sentence type
  5. Making abstract ideas concrete (simplifying information)
  6. Changing from the active voice to the passive voice and vice-versa.

Now write your explanation down into your paper. Make sure you include an in-text citation for the original source.

Paraphrase: Example

Here is an original quote from Plutarch. The quote is a translation of Greek into English and you will agree is not a comfortable read. So the intent of our paraphrase is to improve the narrative whilst retaining all of the important information.

The Quote:

  • On leaving that country and traversing Asia, he learned that Domitius had been defeated by Pharnaces the son of Mithridates and had fled from Pontus with a few followers; also that Pharnaces, using his victory without stint, and occupying Bithynia and Cappadocia, was aiming to secure the country called Lesser Armenia, and was rousing to revolt all the princes and tetrarchs there. At once, therefore, Caesar marched against him with three legions, fought a great battle with him near the city of Zela, drove him in flight out of Pontus, and annihilated his army. In announcing the swiftness and fierceness of this battle to one of his friends at Rome, Amantius, Caesar wrote three words: “Came, saw, conquered.” In Latin, however, the words have the same inflectional ending, and so a brevity which is most impressive.

Bullet points:

  • Caesar in Asia, news regarding Pontus
  • Domitius defeated and has fled
  • Pharnaces (son of Mithridates) in revolt
  • Occupying Bithynia and Cappadocia trying to gain Lesser Armenia
  • Caesar defeated Domitius using three legions near city of Zela.
  • Battle was swift and very successful
  • Caesar writes to his friend Amantius: Came, saw, conquered. (The Latin = ‘Veni, Vedi, Vici’*)
  • Plutarch comments on the same inflectional ending and brevity of this statement (refer to rhetoric-alliteration)

The Paraphrase:

  • According to Plutarch, it was while travelling through Asia that Caesar heard of the defeat of Domitius and his flight from Pontus. (Plutarch, trans. 1919) Pharnaces, the son of Mithradates, had led a revolt which occupied Bithynia and Cappadocia and was currently attempting to secure lesser Armenia. In a swift confrontation outside the city of Zela, Caesar and his three legions comprehensively defeated the rebels. Caesar famously wrote “Veni. Vedi. Vici.” to his friend Amantius. Plutarch is impressed by the brevity of this rhetorical alliteration, which translates as ‘came, saw, conquered’ (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 50).

* I have done some additional research to clarify in my mind what is being said. The Latin which Caesar is purported to have used is a well-known phrase and may support the overall interpretation of the piece. Also an exploration of Plutarch’s final comments led me to its importance based on the art of rhetoric.

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