Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is popping up in the news again, and it makes regular appearances in discussions on editors’ forums. But there is often confusion as to what constitutes plagiarism. Simply put, plagiarism is making someone else’s writing appear to be your own. It’s not enough just to name the source; text that is directly quoted must appear in quotation marks (with a source citation, of course). Text that’s not inside quotation marks must be thoroughly paraphrased, and if it describes someone else’s original idea, the source should be credited. Changing a few words is not proper paraphrasing; the borrowed text must differ from the source throughout, not only in vocabulary but also in structure.


  • When doing research, as soon as you open a source (book, article, website) copy the publication information into your notes:
    • book: author, title, publisher and location, date
    • article: author, title, journal, date, volume, issue, and page numbers; URL or DOI
    • website: author (if applicable), website name, organization, URL
  • Keep your notes organized so that the source of each bit of information is clear.
  • If you paste direct quotes into your notes, clearly mark them as quotes—put them in quotation marks, and perhaps make them a different font colour or put them in a box. Make sure that later you’ll easily be able to tell what is a direct quote and what are your own notes and thoughts, and where each quote came from, including specific page numbers. In my own research, my notes start out almost entirely as identifiable quotes; later, after I’ve done more reading and mulled over the ideas, I paraphrase them and add my own thoughts.
  • When you come to write the document, decide if you want to use a few direct quotes: usually a sentence or so that expresses an idea particularly well or in a distinctive way that you want to share with your readers. Use direct quotes sparingly, and double-check that each one is correctly credited. Ensure that you properly paraphrase anything not appearing in quotation marks, changing not only the words but the structure of the passage, such as the order in which ideas are presented and the syntax of each sentence.
  • Always cite your sources. Even if you’ve carefully and thoroughly paraphrased, give credit for the ideas that aren’t your own. If it’s important that your document show original thinking on your part, let it be your insight into the topic gained through gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas from various named sources. As a bonus, citing sources shows that you’re keeping up with the experts in your field.  

Punctuation Quick Tips: The Semicolon


The semicolon (;) is to many writers a mysterious squiggle. Some avoid it entirely for fear of using it incorrectly, while others tentatively try it out without really understanding its purpose. Writers and editors talking about the semicolon use words like rhythmic, elegant, lyrical, and subtle. It’s powerful punctuation, to be sure, but what’s it for?

Some of the confusion about the semicolon arises from its form: Is it a kind of comma? A variation on the colon? Despite its appearance, it’s neither of these. Functionally, the semicolon is most closely related to the period. It creates a pause, but not a full stop, between independent clauses (complete sentences). Editor Merrill Perlman says using a semicolon is “like rolling through a stop sign, where you are aware of slowing, but are still moving forward.”

Use a semicolon to show a close connection between ideas:

A carbon tax can be revenue neutral. It can be offset by cuts in personal income taxes.

A carbon tax can be revenue neutral; it can be offset by cuts in personal income taxes.

The semicolon creates a smoother flow, and the repetition (can be) becomes rhythmic rather than wooden.

Unlike the comma, the semicolon isn’t followed by a conjunction (and, or, but, for, nor, yet, so).

A semicolon can emphasize a rhetorical pattern used to develop an argument or make a point; it can show cause and effect, comparison, contrast, or other patterns. I like to use a semicolon as the pivot point or fulcrum of the argument: there’s balance but also movement, tension and resolution, a turning point, and sometimes a surprise.

With increasing industrialization, carbon and other greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere; the earth is warming rapidly.

The externalized costs of air pollution often turn up in increased health-care expenditures; those of climate change may be seen in billions spent on disaster recovery.

Most of us are aware of the environmental benefits of energy-efficient buildings; less well known are their social benefits.

Use transitional phrases if needed to make the pattern clear:

Relatively few highways in Canada require tolls; as a result, commuters have little incentive to take regional transit.

Changes in climate will shift agricultural zones northward; similarly, animals may migrate northward or to higher elevations.

There are limits to what can be achieved through regulation; carbon pricing, however, is the surest means of reducing emissions.

In a long complex sentence bursting with subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases, a semicolon can help the reader catch a quick rest and reorient themselves before moving on. Essayist Lewis Thomas likens the semicolon to a bench part way up a steep path:

Although the science of anthropogenic climate change is well established and the predicted effects are beginning to be observed, there are those, who, usually for ideological reasons, do not accept its premises and dispute its findings; perhaps more than anything else, this relatively small but powerful faction has prevented real progress in cutting GHG emissions.

Semicolons are also used to separate list items that contain commas:

Carbon sequestration can happen through natural biological, chemical, or physical processes;  agricultural practices that return carbon to the soil; and chemical technologies that capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it indefinitely.

Take note, however, of a caution from the style guide of The Economist regarding semicolons: “Don’t overdo them.”

Grammar Quick Tips: Parallel Series

Thyme is low growing, fragrant, and has small purple-pink flowers.

Did you spot the error? The three items in the series aren’t parallel. We can test this by reading the sentence with each item alone.

Thyme is | low growing

Thyme is | fragrant

Thyme is | has small purple-pink flowers

This is a common error, and it most often appears in this form: the first two items share a verb (in this example, is), and the third item has a verb of its own (has). We can fix the error by eliminating the series and making a compound sentence.

Thyme is low growing and fragrant, and has small purple-pink flowers.

Another common parallelism error is mixing verb forms.

Jill likes gardening, cooking, and to hike with her dog.

The third item isn’t parallel, but breaking this sentence down item by item doesn’t reveal the error: “Jill likes to hike with her dog” is grammatical. The -ing verb form (acting as nouns here) is mixed with the infinitive form (to walk). This error is easily fixed by making all the forms the same.

Jill likes gardening, cooking, and hiking with her dog.