Attributing Words and Ideas in Your Work


As a graduate student, you engage with diverse ideas and academic work. Writing papers for your seminars and later your thesis and dissertation require you to account for other voices while establishing your own academic voice. Properly citing sources as you write provides a foundation for your argument and builds your credibility as a scholar. You can make connections between your work and previous work through three techniques: summary, paraphrase, and quotation.

Summaries, paraphrases, and quotations, when used properly, also help you avoid plagiarism. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Student Code of Conduct defines plagiarism as: “Presenting the work of another as one's own (i.e., without proper acknowledgment of the source) and submitting examinations, theses, reports, speeches, drawings, laboratory notes or other academic work in whole or in part as one's own when such work has been prepared by another person or copied from another person” (Section 4.2.a.3). The key to avoiding plagiarism is making a clear distinction between the source’s voice and your own. Here are a few hints for properly quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing sources.

Summarizing allows you to quickly provide an overview to a section, chapter, or work. Generally, summaries allow you to provide background knowledge for your own work, whether you plan on building upon that work or refuting its main claims. To summarize the six-page introduction to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White:   

E.B. White recounts the larger-than-life professor William Strunk and his most famous work, The Elements of Style, in the introduction to the 1979 edition of the same. White recollects the original handbook his professor created, which Strunk himself referred to as “the little book” (xiii). While small, this book continues to instruct high school and college students on concise and clear writing. According to White, Strunk singles out turns of phrase that are redundant, excessive, and needless for special attention and editing.

Note the use of “the little book” in quotation marks. It’s included in the summary because it plays a key role in White’s introduction. While “the little book” certainly isn’t original to White (or Strunk), here it’s a direct quote from White’s introduction. He refers to the Elements as a “little book” several times in the course of the introduction, contrasting the book’s deceptively small size with its greater impact.

Paraphrasing is a helpful tool when you're interested in the main idea a writer presents and you want to present the idea succinctly. When writing, you may choose to paraphrase a paragraph, section, or even chapter in a few sentences. 

In the introduction to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, White describes the editions of Elements over the years and his own contribution to the current edition, including his updates to the volume with modern words and phrases (xiv).

When you are paraphrasing a source and you are using a term that they coin or one that is not commonly used by many in your discipline, make sure to attribute these words through a quote within the paraphrase. While “modern words and phrases” was a paraphrase, choosing to pull White’s original language makes the paraphrase more interesting:

In the introduction to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, White describes the editions of Elements over the years and his own contribution to the current edition, where he updates the volume with words and phrases “of a recent vintage” (xiv).

The phrase “of a recent vintage” is pulled directly from White’s writing. Because it’s not commonly used (try typing the phrase into your favorite search engine—the first ten hits will be direct quotes of E.B. White), and it’s clearly being taken from the page being paraphrased, it’s important to properly denote the expression’s source. On the other hand, if you are using a phrase that’s common knowledge for someone in your field you don’t need to attribute a source: e.g., Byronic hero, automatic processes, or human gene patenting.

Finally, quotations play a central role in your academic writing. There are two examples of shorter quotations above, where a particular turn of phrase is not common knowledge (common knowledge includes information that most people know and indisputable facts, e.g., the date the Declaration of Independence was signed; the fact that the sky is blue). When quoting, make sure to introduce the quote and offer an explanation or interpretation for what your reader should note:

E.B. White’s introduction to The Elements of Style celebrates his former advisor through stories of grammar lessons and his “little book.” The two are closely connected for White: “It is encouraging to see how perfectly a book, even a dusty rule book, perpetuates and extends the spirit of a man” (xviii). In the pages of the Elements that follow, the reader can catch glimpses of Professor Strunk, made a little more visible when read through the lens of the classroom examples White carefully included in the introduction.

With a little practice, incorporating summaries, paraphrases, and quotes in your writing will help you properly attribute words, concepts, and ideas. Doing so not only makes sense in terms of academic integrity, but also develops your writing abilities and results in better scholarship.



Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Pearson Longman. 2000.