June 13, 2007

"The subtle line between plagiarism and literary allusion."

Geoffrey K. Pullum has some subtle analysis of the subtle line:
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.
Comedy's complicated. I think the concern is not so much plagiarism -- though Pullum is setting up an interesting plagiarism anecdote -- but the problem of seeming too weird or crazy. If you refer to things that you know everyone knows, it's going to be trite and tiresome. If you refer to things almost no one knows, you're going to be irritating for another reason. Allusions need to fall in some middle ground where the other person is going to get it and feel good about himself for being savvy enough to get it. That said, when you're writing on the internet, the middle ground gets much larger. When someone uses an odd phrase that you don't recognize -- like, for me, Pullam's "a hundred clowns with bees in their underpants" -- you Google it and then you can give the impression of someone who is savvy enough to get it.

Googling the odd phrase is also the way to detect plagiarism, but now when you find the phrase by Googling, you've got to ask whether they used it because they thought you'd Google it so you could consider yourself savvy for getting an allusion or whether they just didn't realize you'd Google it. Pullum's plagiarism story tells of all the excuses he heard when 10 students plagiarized the same quote they found on the internet (including a ridiculous one I've seen a student get away with: "I didn't realize it was wrong because in the country I come from copying is quite normal"). But they didn't try the one his post suggests: "I assumed that you'd Google it, and then appreciate my allusion."


George said...

The referenced June 3 Dilbert comic strip is "hilariously funny"?

"Bees in their underpants?"


bill said...

Seems like the kind of thing Scott Adams would address on his blog. Until then, you can read his poignant post about a tennis ball.

Zach said...

A new question: are there sources for which plagiarism isn't possible, because they are so well known that any reference must be an allusion?

If I posted some comment saying "there were giants in the earth in those days," many people would probably miss the reference. But then again, the quote is from Genesis.

Richard Dolan said...

It seems that plagiarism is one of those subjects the brings out the wrathful, inflexible ayatollah in most academics. In core cases where one author (composer, comic, ...) copies work for the purpose and with the effect of passing it off as his own, no problem -- I'm with the ayatollahs all the way. But as one moves away from those core cases, the anti-plagiarism crusade can turn into farce, as here, where it is reduced to an impossible search for the utmost purity of intention (the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, some wit might say).

People will differ about what amounts to "copying work" for this purpose. To be sensible, a definition has to have a materiality component -- stray phrases and the like aren't enough (at least for me). We all come across a particular description or turn of phrase that, for whatever reason, sticks with us and gets repeated. Evidently, for Pullum, "bees in the underpants" as a phrase or image has some resonance (it seems pretty flat to me, but put issues of taste to the side). There's just nothing reprehensible about making a turn of phrase like that one's own, whether one's intention is to be perceived as having offered a clever allusion or instead a clever turn of phrase. If the standard were otherwise, everyone (certainly bloggers) would be subject to condemnation. Fatwas will fly!

It's not surprising that academics tend to push the line between plagiarism and acceptable conduct to an extreme. The allocation of benefits/rewards in academia is focused on originality, both of content and expression. But difficulties arise because there is undoubted truth in the cliche that there is nothing new under the Sun. Claims of "originality" on which rewards like tenure and reputation can hang thus can seem, to an outsider, to turn on an elaborate exercise in hair-splitting. In that context, Google's ability to focus on an odd phrase, to support an argument that one author intentionally lifted it from another without attribution, is a handy if seriously flawed substitute.

Zeb Quinn said...

His allusion - plagiarism dichotomy is sophistry. I see the distinction he is trying to make, but the line between them is mostly illusory. How does one know which is which? He doesn't offer up, for instance, what he would have done or said if McIntyre hadn't seen the Dilbert strip. Would the reference stood as undetected plagiarism or as an allusion wasted on the ignorant, and what would be the difference between those two? It would be the subjective standard of what was inside his head I suppose.

John Burgess said...

Ann: I'm afraid there are societies in which cheating--whether on exams or papers--is considered a cultural norm. Students in Bangladesh, for instance, have taken their teachers and schools to court to restrain them from enforcing a no-cheating ethic. The Chronicle has a related article.

EB said...


I don't think Ann denies that this may be a cultural norm. She simply finds it to be a ridiculous defense that at least one student got away with at UW.

Jeff said...

Plagarism is stealing a joke outright. Allusion is quoting a joke's punchline alone, which is only funny or flattering (or even comprhensible) to the reader familiar with the set-up of the joke and it's origin. Allusion works by making the knowledgeable reader meet the writer halfway. It is the essence of character-based comedy as well.

Meade said...

T. S. Eliot said something similar to but different from:

Immature clowns imitate; mature clowns cut and paste; bad clowns deface what they take, and good clowns make it into something funnier, or at least something different. The good clown pastes his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was cut; the bad clown throws it into something which has no cohesion, like bees thrown into hundreds of random underpants.

Oligonicella said...

Plagerism? In an informal conversation? Being concerned about that is a joke, right? He was referring to emails. I mean, really, it's a joke? Right? Please?