An important goal in writing is to avoid plagiarism. But does this mean we have to state every idea in phrases we've never heard before?

  • possilble duplicate writing.stackexchange.com/questions/40566/…
    – James K
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 8:14
  • Can you say why the choice is whether or not to state every idea in phrases we've never heard before? Might there be nuances between? Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 21:04
  • Do you not think "avoiding plagiarism" is an important goal in writing in the same way as avoiding bad grammar, or cliches, pompous nonsense or irrelevant drivel? Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 21:09
  • Can you see that to avoid plagiarism should never come into writing? How could that not be like saying "An important goal in life is to avoid everything society sees as wrong, including plagiarism/theft/murder/rape/whatever"? Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 21:16
  • I was referring to accidental plagiarism,. That is the only kind of plagiarism that makes sense with the word "avoid". I don't understand how you misconstrued that.
    – garbia
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 2:05

2 Answers 2


No, it doesn't mean that.

A key test of whether something is public domain or not is if it appears in multiple venues without attribution.

The phrase "No fucking way!" is public domain. Most speaking language and idioms are public domain. If an author points at a copyrighted book, and says "I have that phrase in my book," all you have to do in defense is show some earlier published work that uses that phrase.

For relatively common phrases, most lawyers and judges will not even bother with such a lawsuit, it is a sure loser, a candidate for summary judgement.

If you are worried about some unusual turn of phrase, Google for it (in quotes). The NFW phrase turns up about two million times, by probably millions of authors, in cartoons, GIFs, comics, novels, whatever. If you only find one source, it is likely copyright.

To be safe, you should invent your own clever sayings.

But, unless somebody is actually talking about or quoting a copyrighted work like a novel or movie, what you hear in normal conversation is fair game.

Even then, Arnold's Terminator "I'll be back" line is too short and unoriginal to copyright, and was in common usage long before it was written in a script, even with the same ominous threat vibe.

  • 2
    The question asks about plagiarism, but this answer talks mostly about copyright, which are two different things.
    – MJD
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 22:51
  • I don't follow your logic for your suggestion about googling an unusual turn of phrase. Surely, if you google a quoted phrase, and you get no results back, it could be because the phrase has simply never been used (or recorded, at any rate)? Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 8:02
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I'll rephrase.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 9:50

You can't plagiarise accidentally. But merely "using phrases [you've] never heard of before" doesn't prevent you from plagurism.

Plagiarism is the act of passing off ideas or work of some other person as your own work or ideas (source). One way to plagiarise is to copy someone's words verbatim, but you also plagiarise when you claim their ideas as your own without attribution.

If you are writing, and you aren't copying another person's work or ideas, then you aren't plagiarising. If you are writing and you are copying another person's work or ideas, and you give them credit, then you aren't plagiarising. (For example, I used the definition of plagiarism that I found on Oxford Univ. website, but I didn't plagiarise, because I cited them.)

If you copy someone's ideas or work, but put it into your own phrases that you've never heard before, that is still plagiarism!

So don't worry that you might use the same phrase as someone else. That isn't copying them, it's not plagiarism.

Do worry about putting in clear citations for any ideas or quotes that you take from someone else. And of course do try to have original ideas, because that makes your work unique.

  • Plagiarizing accidentally is certainly possible, although rare. One can "compose" a music tune or a grammatical sentence which they mostly overheard somewhere, and honestly believe that their composition is original until meeting the true original again. Of course, one can hardly plagiarize twenty paragraphs in a row without intent and dedication. Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 20:22
  • Unintentional plagiarism is possible - if someone isn't aware of the rules. And there is a grey area of "influence" - which is especially possible in music. These are edge cases. But the general principle is that plagiarism is presenting someone else's ideas as your own, and so the OP should worry about ideas and not about phrases.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 20:46

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