Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Many instances of unintentional plagiarism can be traced back to sloppily taken notes during the research process. So be scrupulous in your research and note-taking. When you write, your notes will help you identify all borrowed material. Make sure that you clearly identify when you are copying words from a source (and transcribe them exactly or retain digital images of the passages), when you are summarizing or paraphrasing a source, and when you are jotting down an original thought of your own. Remember to record page numbers for quotations and paraphrased passages in your notes. Note-taking apps can help you collect information about your sources and organize your own ideas.

Steer a middle course between recording too much information and too little. Details, like specific phrases and passages, will help you present evidence in your paper. But also remember to describe in your notes how a writer used those details to arrive at a particular conclusion. Notes that merely list quotations without giving any sense of why they are important, how they relate to the sources they derive from and to one another, and what they collectively mean will be of little help to you once you start writing.

As you do research, collect all the sources you use in one place, which will allow you to double-check that your work acknowledges them. Care needs to be taken even when using a digital reference manager for note-taking or creating documentation, since the data used by the software can be incorrect and must be checked against your source. Thus, manual input is often required. Citation tools are a good starting point, but their output must be verified and edited.

For more on conducting research and on the methods and tools that can help you, see the MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature, the MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, and the free tutorials on using the MLA International Bibliography, available at (see also the free online course at

Once you have carefully tracked your research, avoiding plagiarism is relatively straightforward: when the work of others informs your ideas, give credit by summarizing or paraphrasing that work or by accurately quoting it—and always cite your source.

Detailed explanations of how to create works-cited-list entries and in-text citations and how to incorporate quotations and paraphrased passages into your work appear in chapters 5 and 6.

Paraphrasing allows you to maintain your voice while demonstrating that you understand the source because you can restate its points in your own words and with your own sentence structure.

Paraphrase from a source when you want to condense or summarize long passages, arguments, or ideas; make your writing more concise; stay in control of your ideas and argument and maintain your voice; or signal your knowledge of key lines of conversation and concepts from your sources.

A paraphrase should convey the important information in a passage in your own words and sentence structure.

Imagine that you read the following passage about the well-known concept of American exceptionalism (from Walter A. McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776).

Passage in source

American Exceptionalism as our founders conceived it was defined by what America was, at home. Foreign policy existed to defend, not define, what America was.

Maintaining the sentence structure and plugging in synonyms in your paraphrase is insufficient, because doing so hews too closely to the original.

Paraphrase (unacceptable)

American exceptionalism as the founding fathers envisioned the concept was given meaning by America as a homeland. Programs focused on other countries were there to protect America, not delineate it.

If you write the following sentence, however, you have successfully paraphrased the passage by changing the wording and sentence structure.

Paraphrase (acceptable)

As conceived, American exceptionalism was based on the country’s domestic identity, which foreign policy did not shape but merely guarded.

Note that some terms cannot be paraphrased because they represent core concepts, definitions, or principles: it would not make sense, for example, to find a different way to state American exceptionalism just as it would not make sense to find a synonym for capitalism, democracy, freedom, or any other widely used term.

To properly give credit to your source in MLA style, you also need to include an in-text citation directing your reader to a works-cited-list entry and, if you are citing a paginated book, the location in the work where the idea is set forth.

In your prose

As Walter A. McDougall argues, for the founding fathers American exceptionalism was based on the country’s domestic identity, which foreign policy did not shape but merely guarded (37).

Work cited

Walter A.
Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776
Houghton Mifflin

Quoting can be effective when someone else’s words are the focus of analysis or perfectly express an idea. Quotations are most effective in research-based writing when used selectively. Quote only words, phrases, lines, and passages that are particularly apt, and keep all quotations as brief as possible. Always explain the relevance of the quotation to your point. Your project should be about your own ideas, and quotations should help you explain or illustrate those ideas and how you arrived at them.

Quote from a source when the exact wording is important to your claim, the phrasing is particularly compelling, or you want to focus on the language in the source. Quoting should not be used as a substitute for paraphrasing ideas you do not fully understand. Quoting and paraphrasing can be combined in one sentence, as shown in the example below.

Quotations should be transcribed accurately from the source and integrated into your prose grammatically and in a way that distinguishes others’ ideas from your own.

Imagine, for example, that you read the following passage, which coins a term that you wish to discuss in your paper (from Michael Agar’s book Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation).

Passage in source

Everyone uses the word language and everybody these days talks about culture. . .. “Languaculture” is a reminder, I hope, of the necessary connection between its two parts. . . .

If you want to quote from this source in your writing, you must use quotation marks around the borrowed words and give credit to the source. You do this by including an in-text citation that directs the reader to an entry for the work in the list of works cited and to the page number where the quoted material appears in the source.

In your prose (incorrect)

At the intersection of language and culture lies a concept that has been called “languaculture.”

In your prose (correct)

At the intersection of language and culture lies a concept that Michael Agar calls “languaculture” (60).

Work cited

Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation
HarperCollins Publishers

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal