A bit of context:

Exhibit A) I wrote a poem that had the line "crystalline crystal lines."

I googled this phrase, just to see if it was out there, and I saw that it was. I had never read the poem in question, but I still felt like I was in dangerous plagiarism territory, so I ended up using another phrase instead in my poem.

B) I wrote a poem in which I had the line "synonym synonym synonym synonym." I googled this phrase, and I saw that it was used several times (in a non-poetic genre, in a scholarly argument and a news article).

I also used the phrase "reading the Cliff's Notes of Hamlet" and I saw that someone in an online discussion board used this phrase. I used the phrase "sword-wielding protectors" and this appeared in several hits of fantasy novels and forums. Same with the phrase "kaleidoscope galaxies," and "children of the atom," which is the name of several comic book series. In a poem I mention the movie finding Nemo, and say that "he's a fish who's been separated from his father." I found this quote in a scholarly article about the film. In all these cases, I hadn't read these sources at all, or even heard of them. In all of these cases, I have felt uncomfortably close to plagiarism, and have altered my poems.

What do you all think?

Am I being oversensitive and paranoid because I'm not the first one to come up with a certain phrase? Or am I doing the right thing?

  • Clif's Notes of Hamlet is distrubingly common. – Joshua Dec 7 at 19:01
  • "Or am I doing the right thing?" That strongly depends on your definition of what is right. Do you fear that you may have broken some kind of copyright protection law? – Trilarion Dec 8 at 10:14
  • @Trilarion no, I don't fear I've broken some sort of copyright law. I guess I just got paranoid because I read about a poet who used the ideas of others, without having realized it. And this totally seems like plagiarism, and I'm scared of doing the same thing. I haven't set out to plagiarize at all, but I'm still scared I might have without intending to. – poetryfan66 Dec 9 at 1:16

You're being overly sensitive. Any combination of two words, no matter how original, could be already used elsewhere. That's not plagiarism, that's statistics.

The only slightly worrying case is your exhibit A, since it's the most unusual sentence of the ones you cited. But then again, I wouldn't fret about it. They are just three words in a line, even if they are somewhat peculiar, they are three.

Exhibit B is not even an exhibit: you just used a rhetorical device of repetition over the word "synonym". It's not plagiarism, its just chance.

Consider the famous Macbeth verse:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

By your standards, you wouldn't be able to use combinations as:

  • Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow (again, a repetition)
  • petty pace
  • recorded time
  • lighted fools
  • dusty deaths
  • brief candle

If this seems unreasonable to you, it's because it is. Plagiarism is, most of the time, a deliberate decision; being inspired by others is another thing entirely, and using expressions already used elsewhere is almost unavoidable.

I won't open here the whole debate of originality vs imitation, but that's another thing to consider, and very relevant to the creative process. To wrap it up, while we may follow the idea of being "original" and do things nobody has done before, as humans a lot of our mindframe (and artistic sense) comes from consuming and imitating the works of others. And that, if you want my two cents on the matter, is perfectly fine.

Going back to your question: rein in your inner editor, because it's rampaging and censoring your own work.

  • 5
    " rein in your inner editor, because it's rampaging and censoring your own work." Great line and great advice. – raddevus Dec 7 at 15:43
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    Agreed. In some sense we're all plagiarizing in this question since every bit of everything on this entire thread has been used before and we're not giving attribution. So I think the standard for plagiarism needs to go beyond just "it came up in a Google search", because we're really not plagiarizing; the latter is a deliberate act, when you copy someone else's work without attribution. You can't do that if you haven't encountered their work before. In which case you're just independently coming up with the same thing, which is 100% fine. :) – bob Dec 7 at 19:14
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    And of course in reality there's a gray area too, because I don't think anyone has an expectation that everyone will cite anything they picked up from anyone else ever (e.g. citing StackExchange questions). It would be polite but I'm not sure it's practical. It's a tricky thing... – bob Dec 7 at 19:25
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    For example, is it plagiarism if you copy my phrase "it's a tricky thing"? Anyway, I think as long as you follow established guidelines on plagiarism you're fine. Just don't overthink it--it's a rabbit hole. – bob Dec 7 at 19:32
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    Tip: If you add two spaces at the ends of lines, markdown will go onto the next line. Thus you can achieve poetry formatting without the ugly hack of double-spacing the lines. – TRiG Dec 7 at 21:10

You're being paranoid.

New writers are often overly concerned that something they are writing may accidentally resemble something that someone else wrote. I've heard writers fret, on this forum and elsewhere, because, "Oh no, I'm writing a story where the hero is a skilled martial arts expert who fights criminals and who falls in love with the girl he rescues, and now I found another story that also meets that description!" Well news flash, there are thousands of stories out there that match general descriptions like that.

A phrase like "sword-wielding protectors" is an obvious description of a certain type of character. Fretting because someone else used the same phrase is like fretting because someone else said a man was "tall and thin".

If a phrase is truly original and distinctive, there might be grounds for concern. Like I certainly wouldn't have a character say "we have nothing to fear but fear itself", or "I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears", or "to be or not to be, that is the question", and try to present this as an original formulation. But phrases that are plainly descriptive and not particularly poetic, even if they happen to resemble someone else's words, are not likely to lead anyone to think you're plagiarizing.

  • Actually, there's no way you can present "to be or not to be" as an original formulation. I mean, I don't even know how you would "try to present this" as original even if you wanted to. – Wildcard Dec 7 at 20:07
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    @Wildcard I could CLAIM that it was original. I presume anyone with even a modest education would say, "Uh, yeah, right ..." But yes, I deliberately chose examples that are well known quotes to make the point. I hope I wouldn't get away with "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" either, especially not in Britain. Etc. Hey, as education gets dumbed down, maybe I COULD plagiarize famous quotes and people would think I was a genius. – Jay Dec 7 at 21:50

How to plagiarize:

  1. Deliberately steal someone's work. This is always ethically wrong and usually illegal too. Students who do this get expelled or otherwise punished. Authors who do this get legal repercussions and shunned. All deserved. This is not even close to what you are doing.

  2. Accidentally steal someone's work. Sometimes when you get an idea and you don't know where you came up with it, it turns out someone else's work was in your brain and it filtered in. This is what you're worried you might be doing and, yes, looking up the phrases is a really good idea. But if you find similar (or even exact) short phrases only in places you're not already familiar with, it's a good sign that you're not stealing by accident. (If you are familiar with the other works you probably didn't steal but accident either, context matters.)

  3. Screw up during your learning process. Students sometimes don't understand how to quote or cite things properly. They aren't claiming they wrote XYZ but they write their paper or work in a way that's misleading the reader. As long as nothing gets officially published, this is the sort of thing a good teacher will catch and correct.

You are right to be cautious and to research. All of us should do that. But none of your examples are plagiarism. Or even borderline. So keep checking, but consider that you've done your due diligence and go write!

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