In Praise of the Semi-Quote

Research depends on copying other people’s ideas and, to a lesser extent, copying their words. (Properly referenced, of course.) We would still be back in the Middle Ages if scholars had to start from scratch each time. To use the words of Newton, it is only because we stand on the shoulders of giants that we can make progress on the difficult problems that face us.

But, that’s not a problem. In a scholarly paper, you can copy pretty much anything within the fair-use provisions of copyright law so long as you do two things: First, you admit that it’s not your work, and second you say where it came from, in enough detail that someone can find the source.

The alternative to quoting someone is a paraphrase. By the normal definition, paraphrasing consists of putting someone else’s ideas into your own words. It is honest when it is properly referenced, but most style guides emphasize that it should be “into your own words” (e.g. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue, ). Because of this categorical gulf between a quote and a paraphrase, people and papers lose precision. I write here in praise of an intermediate strategy, the semi-quote.

Semi-Quoting – How to do it.

How to do it? Very simple: take someone’s words, and modify them to the minimal extent necessary, and make three things clear: 1) how to find the original words, 2) what part of your work is this modified quote, and 3) that you have modified the original words but kept the meaning to the best of your ability. So, a semi-quote is really a tight and accurate paraphrase that uses some of the authors own words.

One of the problems with this idea is that we don’t have a set of marks to indicate what is going on. We don’t have anything like quote marks that say «this part is not completely mine». So, it can be hard to be clear where the semi-quote starts and stops, and absent clarity, writers are naturally skittish. There are multiple dangers: If the scope of your reference doesn’t seem cover the whole paraphrase, you look like you are plagarizing. If you reference seems to cover more than the paraphrase, then you can be accused of putting words into someone else’s mouth. People may think that you are badly quoting or (worse yet) mis-quoting someone with malice.

So, we need to adopt marks for semi-quotes. We might as well adopt quote marks from some non-English language, the most common of which is the angular quote marks used in Spanish, French, and other languages (including Simplified Chinese). So, you put a “«” mark at the beginning of the semi-quote and a “»” mark at the end. These marks are in fonts in all major software these days.

Then, you reference the semi-quote. Until the marks are completely accepted you should probably carefully describe what you did in the reference. Something like this: «We shall fight them on the landing grounds, the beaches, the streets and the hills. We shall never surrender.» (A shortened quote from W. Churchill, 4 June 1940, taken from the last paragraph of his speech in the House of Commons, London).

Always be aware that you may be misinterpreting the author. A semi-quote is really a type of paraphrase, and you are taking responsibility for clearly carrying the ideas of the original work over to your readers. To minimize any misinterpretation, always keep your semi-quote as close as possible to the author’s original text. Borrow his/her words if possible, use pieces of phrases, if appropriate. Don’t introduce any unnecessary differences.

Semi-Quoting Properly — Why do it?

Why Semi-Quoting? Why not quote exactly, or (alternatively) why not express the idea entirely in your own words?

Usually, if you must use someone’s idea, it is indeed better to quote it exactly. That avoids the inevitable distortions that will be introduced by a semi-quote. Only semi-quote, when you cannot find a suitable exact quote.

Sometimes, though, you will find authors being wordy. Sometimes, they describe irrelevant detail. Sometimes, an author will discuss many cases and never quite talk about a special case you are interested in. Or, sometimes an author will use special terminology that would be too complicated to explain in the brief space that you can allocate for the quote. Sometimes, you just cannot find a reasonable-sized chunk of text that clearly expresses the author’s meaning. That’s when paraphrasing can be justified.

But there are risks that you may mis-lead your readers. For instance, if he/she avoided the special case you are interested in, that may have been on purpose: the original author may have known that his theory should not be applied there. Or, special terminology and/or wordiness may have been in an effort to be precise. In that case, your semi-quote may be violating the meaning of the author’s text. However, these risks are generally minimized by sticking close to the original author’s text rather than forcing the ideas into your own words. What you want is half-way between a traditional paraphrase and a quote.

Semi-Quote Conclusions rather than Re-state them

There is a particular case where a semi-quote will often be better than standard standard scholarly practice: writing about other people’s conclusions. People often re-state the results of a paper they reference. They do this because often it is impossible find just the right quote, and they think that a paraphrase must be entirely in their own words. The trouble is, that when people write the conclusions of a paper, they are usually being very careful in the words that they use. Restating this in your own words invariably distorts the results. The closer you can come to the original the better, so a semi-quote is often a better solution.

This becomes especially important if your readers cheat, as some of them will. People sometimes use a secondary source, rather than going back to the primary source. You may be that secondary source, and some later authors will – improperly – base their description upon your description of the original conclusion. Thus it pays to be as accurate as possible.

After watching science for a few years, it becomes clear that conclusions harden and shift from one generation of papers to another. Even given an original source that carefully circumscribes the validity of the results and qualifies the conclusions, in the text books thirty years later, all the subtlety will be gone. Successive paraphrases erode subtlety and qualifiers, so conclusions seem to become stronger and more broadly applicable.

The problem is that attempting to cast someone else’s idea into your own words invariably changes the idea. It the original was perfect, the paraphrase is somewhat incorrect. If the original was wrong, an honest paraphrase is unlikely to make it much better, so paraphrasing is a losing game. The goal of the semiquote is to minimize the loss of accuracy by allowing the paraphrase to be as close as possible to the original, while still allowing flexibility and the ability to correctly reference the original work.

The story below lampoons this process of successive paraphrases:

Memo Degradation

Memo from CEO to Manager: Today at 11 o’clock there will be a total eclipse of the sun. This is when the sun disappears behind the moon for two minutes. As this is something that cannot be seen every day, time will be allowed for employees to view the eclipse in the parking lot. Staff should meet in the lot at ten to eleven, when I will deliver a short speech introducing the eclipse, and giving some background information. Safety goggles will be made available at a small cost.

Memo from Manager to Department Head: Today at ten to eleven, all staff should meet in the car park. This will be followed by a total eclipse of the sun, which will appear for two minutes. For a moderate cost, this will be made safe with goggles. The CEO will deliver a short speech beforehand to give us all some information. This is not something that can be seen every day.

Memo from Department Head to Floor Manager: The CEO will today deliver a short speech to make the sun disappear for two minutes in the form of an eclipse. This is something that cannot be seen every day, so staff will meet in the car park at ten or eleven. This will be safe, if you pay a moderate cost.

Memo From Floor Manager to Supervisor: Ten or eleven staff are to go to the car park, where the CEO will eclipse the sun for two minutes. This doesn’t happen every day. It will be safe, and as usual it will cost you.

Memo from Supervisor to staff: Some staff will go to the car park today to see the CEO disappear. It is a pity this doesn’t happen everyday. (From .)

But some people say that close paraphrases are bad…

Close paraphrases are often treated rather harshly in academic style guides. For instance, in (“Writing about Music”: An Essay Style Guide, page on “Quotation and Paraphrase”, Department of Music, Mount Allison University, 2005) they say:

What is so bad about such close paraphrasing? Two things. First, there is an odor of dishonesty, even of plagiarism, about it. The absence of quotation marks lends a false air of originality to the passage; we are presumably meant to believe that all words are the essayist’s own.

These problems no longer exist you use semiquote marks. With semiquotes, you are indicating – in an honest scholarly manner – that the words are not your own. You acknowledge that you have modified the original authors words and claim that you have preserved the meaning as accurately as possible. There is no air of false originality and no dishonesty.

So, the problems described in style guides are real, but they are not the fault of the close paraphrase. They are the result of not acknowledging that the text is a close paraphrase. Use of semiquotes and a proper reference to the source solves the problem. Style guide authors who look down upon close paraphrases are mistakenly trying to solve an honesty problem with grammatical tools.

Thanks to Kelly Kochanski for editing.  This may also be found here .