As a non-native speaker of english, I often struggle with always finding new, well-sounding, non-repetitive descriptions for the same thing and I also, to be honest, find it a waste of time of always having to do something different. For example:

Section 1 describes the X while section 2 is about the Y. The Z is explained in section 3 and section 4 refers to A. The next section is about B...

Is it ok to just copy the formulation of someone else (of course my X,Y,Z,... are completely different) and always use the same thing?


4 Answers 4


Sentence patterns are not intellectual property; otherwise, every author who wrote "To X or not to X" would be plagiarizing Shakespeare. (They are "riffing" off of him, but not plagiarizing!)

The example you are citing is perfectly innocuous, particularly since you are not doing anything more than summarizing the paper contents. The only thing that would make it wrong would be to copy those sentences directly from someone else's work.

  • 3
    @kirdie In case you are not familiar with "To be or not to be", please refer to Shakespeare's famous phrase
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 13:10
  • Well I'm not a native speaker but I know that phrase :-) Commented Jul 10, 2013 at 19:35

There is a fine line between copying and plagiarism. In general the answer would be no, copying would be plagiarism. However, with certain fomulations there may be limited ways to vary. If the text you copy has some intellectual value, the result of someones inventiveness more than just lining up words to form a sentence, then the formulation has intellectual value and should be referenced, not for th eEnglish but for its content. A trivial sentence is just language and it is not unlikely that one would formulate a sentence identically to someone else. We also learn language from looking at how others (who we believe are better than ourselves) may express themselves. This is not plagiarism.

So for me the critical issue is if there is content other than linguistics that is being copied, if so then plagiarism is round the corner. So as a final statement, I would say: better safe than sorry; don't copy stuff, try to use the linguistic formulation but write the sentence with your word. Learn grammar and speling by checking what others do and emulate, not copy.


If in doubt, just repeat yourself.

One of the things that stands out about reading papers written by poor English speakers is the ugly contortions they go to in order to avoid repeating themselves. "X is about Y. Z is about W. A is about B" may be repetitive but it's perfectly understandable. I would suggest that you do this rather than attempting to copy the form of another writer, I'd also note that your assumption that you can simply lift the same form each time and have it look right may well be wrong anyway.

I realise this doesn't answer the question you actually posed but I think it deals with the question you need answering.

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    ^this. With some effort you will have a number of these descriptive phrases that you can re-use and at least you know they are yours. The example you give seems to be a very obvious case to "copy" someone else, but it is also an example where there is no actual need to do so. You would pretty much end up with the same phrase if you start writing by yourself. However once you start copying others, you may end up crossing the line without noticing. Better to build up the discipline of processing someone else's thought and then writing it in your own words.
    – FvD
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 16:53

No, your example is definitely not plagiarism.

More generally, you can refer to the book "Writing for Computer Science" by Justin Zobel (Second edition, p.65, Section Quotations) to decide when to quote and when to merely copy:

"note that it is not essential to quote such a dull statement as (...); paraphrase, or even simply omitting the quote symbols, would be more appropriate. Omisission of quotation marks in this case is acceptable--that is, not plagiarism--because (this) statement is a natural way to express the concept."

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    The case Zobel is talking about is completely different. His example deals with whether it's necessary to put quotation marks around "open sets are of insufficient power" in the sentence "Crosley [2000] argues that open sets are of insufficient power". In Zobel's example sentence, I agree that it would not be plagiarism to omit the quotation marks even if "open sets are of insufficient power" was taken verbatim from Crosley, but I don't see how this is relevant to the question asked here. Zobel isn't saying that you can just copy a "natural way to express the concept" with no attribution. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 14:59
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    I did understand exactly that, that copying "a natural way to express the concept" was not plagiarism. (Which does not mean that the concept itself should not be correctly be attributed and referenced.)
    – J..y B..y
    Commented Jul 10, 2013 at 15:17

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