June 12, 2007

Plagiarism and allusion

A few days ago I got an email from John McIntyre telling me about his usage blog on the Baltimore Sun's website. He wanted me to know about the blog in case I wanted to attack it (as "Another damn prescriptivist blog", he suggested, though he says he's only a "moderate prescriptivist"). I had a look, and noticed that he hates many common clichés: phrases like at the end of the day meaning "ultimately", and so on. I didn't have much time for lengthy polite correspondence, so I sent him a brief note composed entirely of annoying clichés: I told him that life is short, and at the end of the day you've still got to get up in the morning, and so on. He mailed back to ask, "Are you saying I'm looking up a dead hog's ass?" I still didn't have any time for chat (heavens, here at UC Santa Cruz the academic year is not quite over yet — I'm still grading finals), so on a hunch I just sent him this comment:

I'm saying your blog is like a hundred clowns with bees in their underpants. I expect its lowering of morale to lead to violence.

What happened then was just what I expected.

Back came a message, within a minute or two, saying: "Ah, another Scott Adams fan." Because, you see, the words in red above are essentially just quoted from Scott's extraordinarily funny Dilbert strip of June 3. And crucially, I had decided that I could be sure John would recollect it and identify it.

That's the subtle line between plagiarism and literary allusion. It's plagiarism if you copy someone's writing and you don't want it to be noticed that you were copying; it's allusion if you do exactly the same but you do want it to be noticed.

If I had hoped Mr McIntyre would not identify the source of my very funny metaphor and would think me responsible for its brilliantly humorous simile, I would not be a brilliantly humorous writer, I would be a dumb and contemptible plagiarist. And if I had thought he would spot the quotation but I was wrong and he did not, I would be in an awkward spot for two reasons: (i) I would have gratuitously insulted someone I didn't even know, and (ii) I would have used someone else's clever humor without admitting it or citing the source, and would thus have put myself in danger of being fingered later as a plagiarist.

But I had judged him right: I took him to be well acquainted with such familiar features of our culture as the Dilbert strip, and I intended him to see that I was quoting, and he did, and I intended him to see that I intended him to see that I was quoting, and he did, and I intended him to see that I intended him to see that I intended him to see that I was quoting, and he did, and... Perhaps it would be simpler if I just cut this (non-vicious) infinite regress short and say that I intended there to be not just recognition of the quote but also mutual recognition of our mutual knowledge state.

I once had to fail ten percent of a 100-student class for plagiarizing. Ten people had copied the same crucial line off the web, without even understanding it, and submitted it as part of their answers to a homework problem set. (Trust me: there were five reasons why it was totally clear that it had been copied letter for letter. The material was technical, and the line in question introduced four things I had not taught, and at one point there was a letter interpreted as an arbitrary label, so any letter would have done just as well, but they had all chosen the same one.) I hauled each one in for the obligatory personal interview in which by university regulations I was required to listen to their side of the story.

They sat there and made their various responses: "I've never copied anything before in my life"; "I didn't realize it was wrong because in the country I come from copying is quite normal"; "I didn't copy anything, I just studied with people who did and I must have picked it up from them unknowingly"; "I can't afford to have a dishonesty charge on my record because I'm applying to law school"; "My dad's a lawyer and I'm going to have you fired!"; "Is there nothing I can do?"; "Do you have any more Kleenex™ brand tissues?"; and so on — as usual, it was pathetic. Then I failed them all and reported them to the disciplinary authorities.

Later I told the whole class very plainly: if those students had quoted the line, given the source, and explained briefly why it was an excellent and very sophisticated solution to the problem I had posed, I would have given them extra credit for finding it and citing it. But they tried to pretend it was their own unaided work. They did not intend me to see it as a quotation, or to google down its source.

And there's another aspect to the matter: If the students had given their source, I would have felt flattered and pleased that they assumed I was smart enough that they couldn't pretend; but instead they insulted me by treating me as someone who was too dull-witted to spot collusion, or too bone idle to use the Google™ search engine to prove it was collusion. They had not just been dishonest, which is a bad enough sin in academia; they had insulted my intelligence, which is an utter no-no to the nth power with a side order of fries, and will cause me to wreak my awful vengeance. Don't ever insult my intelligence.

On the one hand, plagiarism, with the fairly serious punishments that are generally attendant on it (remember this case). On the other, quotation without troubling to cite the source because of a confidence that the audience will recognize the quotation and interpret it as an obvious allusion. It's a subtle line to draw, perhaps, but no very difficult concept is involved. It's really the same as the difference between wearing a Darth Vader mask because you are dressed up as Darth Vader (and intending to be recognized as someone dressed up as him — not to be mistaken for him), and wearing one in order not to be recognized while you are robbing a bank.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 12, 2007 08:16 PM