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I've always understood paraphrase to mean the repeat a quote without using the exact words.

However, recently I've seen increasing use of the word paraphrase to mean repeating a famous quotation with a twist. I.e. the original quote is given almost verbatim but applied to an entirely different area.

Am I correct in understanding that this second usage is incorrect?

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To paraphrase @Jeremy, No, you are incorrect. That's not the best example, but "to paraphrase oscar wilde" should get you over 50,000 hits, the vast majority of which will be OP's second usage.

It simply doesn't make sense to classify such a common usage as "incorrect". When people use paraphrase in this way they obviously don't mean they're trying to express Wilde's exact (or even approximate) original meaning in different words. Usually they're deliberately making a few well-chosen word changes to produce a witticism about something Wilde never had in mind.

It's true that express exactly the same sentiment in different words is one meaning of paraphrase, and I'm sure this must surely be the earlier usage. But it's certainly not the only meaning.

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  • Good point. It's muddy when a word usage goes from incorrect to in-use-by-popular-demand, and you're likely right that it's in use enough that it's in the second case.
    – Jeremy
    Sep 21, 2011 at 6:34
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    Indeed. The OED’s definition 1a is ‘to express the meaning of (a written or spoken passage, or the words of an author or speaker) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity; to render or translate freely’. However, definition 1c gives ‘to adapt, appropriate, or alter the wording of (a saying or quotation) or the words of (an author or speaker) to suit one's own purpose.’ The earliest citation in that sense is dated 1841. Sep 21, 2011 at 8:02
  • I'm pretty sure that changing "Yes, you are correct" to "No, you are incorrect" doesn't qualify under any definition. But I have to agree with the rest of your answer. Sep 21, 2011 at 16:38
  • @drɱ65: Good grief! It's worse than having birthdays! I'll have to start doling out more bonuses to delay the 17K mark! Sep 21, 2011 at 21:16
  • @Winston: Well I did admit it wasn't "the best". But in my defence I must say the context was particularly apt, and I did only change five letters in total. Anyway, as best I recall, I really did enter that text by cut/paste/edit from Jeremy's - surely that counts for something! Sep 21, 2011 at 21:19
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Yes, Winston, you are correct. The second usage is indeed incorrect. As an example, let me cite a recent post on TechCrunch in which the contributor, Ryan Craig, claims to paraphrase Dan Ariely when he writes:

To paraphrase Dan Ariely, founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight, “Education technology is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”

But in his post on Facebook, Dan Ariely actually wrote:

Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it...

It shouldn't be very difficult to see that “big data” and “educational technology” aren't the same thing though the latter could in some cases handle the former.

Now, if we were to just look at Craig's statement, we would be lead to erroneously assume that Dan Ariely had written about education technology something to the effect of comparing that to teenage sex and that Craig had put it more succinctly. Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

There is a difference between paraphrasing and taking out of context. When the context is different and you want to copy a part of the actual words for your own purpose, it would be better to say “to borrow the words of ...”, name the person and then insert your context and place the rest of the original words within quotation marks as such:

To borrow the words of Dan Ariely, founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight, education technology “is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”.

Now, to be sure of the meaning of paraphrase, we need to look at authoritative references (dictionaries) and I have checked the following sources all of which are at my disposal:

  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  • Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  • Chambers 21st Century Dictionary (online)
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  • Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's Dictionary

I have also consulted the less authoritative sources such as Wikipedia and Wordsmyth.net. Not one of the sources I have checked support the second usage of “paraphrase” as you have mentioned or as used by Craig.

A common misuse does not amount to an acceptable use. While meanings of words in the English language are always evolving, as of yet, no authoritative dictionaries have accepted the meaning as misunderstood by most people who claim that the word “paraphrase” can be used in different contexts or with twists to the original intended message such that it completely ignores the original context and message.

I am not saying that a paraphrase has to be exact in meaning, but minimally, it still has to approximate to the meaning and context as used in the original text (something that may be described as quasi-paraphrasing).

In a relatively recent study, Rahul Bhagat, a PhD graduate from the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, working with Eduard Hovy, an emeritus fellow at that institute, wrote a journal article “What is a Paraphrase?” in which they identified “25 operations that generate quasi-paraphrases”, none of which applies to the misunderstood meaning of paraphrase. If you are interested, you may seek it on Google. I am unable to post more than two links as a new user. (Rolling my eyes...)

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Yes, you are correct. To paraphrase is to attempt capture the intended meaning of a quote without using the same words. To change the quote to give it a twist or to apply it in a new context might be interesting, but it's just not paraphrasing.

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