How to Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is the skill of transforming a sentence or passage into a new expression while maintaining the idea or message of the original.
In simpler terms, paraphrasing means changing the words and sentence structures of a written or spoken passage in order to convey an idea in a clear and accurate manner while maintaining the original author’s intention.

We generally paraphrase for specific purposes:

  • We want to include ideas that are not our own, but we don’t want to directly copy someone else’s words
  • We want to convey an idea we like, but the original was written in a way that is difficult to understand, and we want to simplify it
  • We want to include in our own writing something that someone else said or wrote, but the direct quotation would be too long, so we want to shorten it and deliver the key points (of course with reference to the original author)
  • We want to succeed on an English proficiency exam, which often uses paraphrasing as a tool in its listening and reading sections in order to assess the test taker’s ability to recognize sentence structures, to measure vocabulary range, or to simply make the test more difficult.

The TOEFL, IELTS exams make frequent use of paraphrasing, and expect students to recognize similar ideas presented differently; for example, in a reading passage and its corresponding question set.

How do we paraphrase?

First, we need to understand the difference between a restatement and a paraphrase. A restatement says exactly the same thing as the original, though it might use different words and structures. A paraphrase, will convey the message of the original, though it may get there in different ways. As the term implies, a restatement essentially “states again”, usually for emphasis or to make sure the message gets across. A paraphrase allows the writer to add his or her own voice to the writing.

The fundamental changes in a paraphrased sentence is the vocabulary. We must try to change as many words as possible (not including necessary function words, such as articles, prepositions, unavoidable pronouns, and so on). We do this by using synonyms and expressions to convey an equal meaning to the original. Here we need to be careful; some synonyms carry added nuance in different contexts, and we must be careful not to imply ideas that were not intended in the original.

Note: If we consider the nuance of the word choices we make as writers, then we imply a degree of paraphrasing. Thus, it can be said that paraphrasing involves a certain level of interpretation. Here is where you need to be careful. As writers, especially when it comes to tests, think of yourselves working somewhere between the restatement and the paraphrase. The English tests will leave you no room for interpretation, but the restatements are not always very direct either.

Ex: William proposed to Helene, but she refused.

William asked Helene to marry him, but she declined his offer.

While the second sentence essentially says and means the same thing (she will not marry him), there is an added nuance to the words refused and declined. Refused implies a strong, direct negation, while declined (his offer) suggests a softer, more polite negation. Is this important in the overall delivery of the message? That depends on your purpose in this writing. If Helene’s character is something that you want the reader to be aware of, then yes, this is very important. If, however, this is a history of William’s life, and Helene is a small, insignificant part of his life, then no, it probably is not important. If it is important, you can write:

William asked Helene to marry him, but she said no.

Notice as well that the number of words used in the paraphrase is not important. What is important is delivering the message, and if this requires more words, then use more. Ultimately, though, we want to write as simply as possible; in other words, the paraphrase should be simpler than the original, not as, or more, complicated.

That being said, do not be afraid to reuse words from the original that would require long and troublesome expressions to replace:

Ex: Original: Joey’s parents were worried that his older siblings’ reputations at the high school would shadow Joey’s own sense of personal identification; with this in mind they decided to enroll him at the private school near their home.

Paraphrased: Joey’s mother and father, concerned about their son’s developing self-awareness under the impact of his elder brothers’ and sister’s statuses at the high school, opted to enter him at the private high school close to their house.

Having no other information than what is given in the first sentence, what problems can you identify in the paraphrase?

  • The paraphrase is longer, and actually less easy to read than the original.
  • The paraphrase assumes that Joey has brothers and sisters. All we know from the original is that he has siblings. This could mean a brother and sister, or brothers, or sisters, or any other combination. In this case it would be better to use siblings in the paraphrase as well.
  • Parents has no direct synonym. Mother and father consists of three words, which, if used a few times in a paragraph, would make the reading sluggish (slow). In cases where there is no direct synonym, use the original word. However, if the word appears many times in the passage, then once or twice use mother and father. Use pronouns (they) to refer to them as often as possible.

What is good about the paraphrase?

  • There are different vocabulary choices (e.g., decided to vs. opted to)
  • There are different structures, including a participle phrase. The paraphrase is a simple sentence, while the original was a compound-complex sentence.
  • The paraphrase retains the original sentences message.

Changing sentence structures is the next step. English provides a wide range of possibilities when it comes to expressing ideas. We have active and passive voice, we have the subjunctive, participles, phrases, appositives, inversions, and other forms that ensure a reader never needs to be bored from reading a “monotonous” passage. Just as we add inflection and stress to our spoken language (raising and lowering the wave of our voice, slowing or speeding up the delivery, stressing this syllable or that), we can add these elements to our written language as well.

The simplest restatement is a simple rearrangement of clause order.

Ex: Even though he was the youngest in the class, Kyle was at least three inches taller than all his classmates.

Kyle was at least three inches taller than all his classmates, even though he was the youngest in the class.

Although this is not technically a restatement (all the words are the same), it is a good starting point. From this point you can now begin to change vocabulary to get the full effect.

Kyle was taller than the other students in his class by three inches or more, despite being the youngest there.

Other features that can be used are simple structural changes, such as changing the active voice to a passive one and vice versa. The main thing to keep in mind is that the order of events and actions remains the same, in terms of sequence, regardless of where they appear in either sentence. More specifically, make sure the person or thing acted upon is still receiving the action in both sentences. Make sure as well that the agent responsible for the action is still in the same position (acting as agent) in both sentences.

Ex: Although the play received rave reviews in the papers, with one review in particular written by an impressed critic who is notoriously difficult to impress, Jess felt disappointed by her performance and vowed to practice hard every day in order to improve.

What do we need to do first? Simple: make sure you clearly understand the sentence given. Analyze its parts:

Independent clause: Jess felt disappointed by her performance and vowed to practice hard every day – a compound clause, using the conjunction and

Phrase: in order to improve. – This is why she vowed to practice hard every day.

Subordinate clause: Although the play received rave reviews – This clause contrasts Jess’s feeling of disappointment.

Extra info phrase: with one review in particular written by an impressed critic who is notoriously difficult to impress – This phrase emphasizes the contrasting idea of her success and her feeling of disappointment.

The main idea, then, is that Jess is unhappy with her performance despite the praise she received for it. A sample paraphrase might look like this:

Jess was unhappy with her performance despite the praise that was given her in the press, especially by the critic who everyone knows is very difficult to please, and so promised to work hard every day to get better.

The idea has remained the same. The independent clause, Jess was unhappy with her performance and so promised to work hard every day, is true to the original. The words and structures have changed, especially in the forms of passive and active voices. Though this is not a direct restatement, it is not entirely a paraphrase either. Not every detail is repeated, but the original sentence and the new one leave no room for interpretation.

When we think about language tests, the same changes apply. In the IELTS test, for example, the reading section has a question set that asks the test taker to answer questions about the passage and the author’s intention. The test asks you to state whether the author would agree or not with the statements that follow. You must answer Yes, No, or Not Given. Just as with other tests that evaluate one’s ability to recognize paraphrasing, the information provided in the passage and in the questions either agree completely (Yes), or disagree (No), even if only partially. Some of the statements will appear to match information in the passage, though the details are not actually there (Not Given).

Let’s look at an example:

Ex: The following is a paragraph taken out of a longer passage about the Emperor penguin.

At approximately three years of age, the mature emperor penguin is ready to mate. This process, which begins at the onset of the Antarctic winter, usually in March and April, includes a long journey inland to the colonial nesting areas. The shortening of the days seems to trigger the move, which can be from 50 to 120 kilometers long. At the nesting area, the penguins engage in a courtship ritual in which the lone males move through the colony calling out for a mate. This involves placing their heads on their chests as they inhale deeply before emitting the mating call. Once matched, a male and female will stand facing each other with their heads and necks stretched upwards for several minutes. They will then walk together through the colony until the breeding process is complete. Moreover, they will likely pair up again the following winter, as Emperor penguins are known to be monogamous and can recognize each other in the colony. Only when a mate cannot be found again in subsequent winters will an Emperor penguin seek out a new mate, as the breeding period is short and reproduction takes priority over fidelity.

Would the author agree with the following statements?

  1. As the winter begins in the Antarctic in March or April, the Emperor penguin travels away from the coast to an area where it will seek out a partner in order to reproduce.
  1. In the nesting areas, the penguins walk around looking for mates by making sounds and raising their heads and necks at each other.
  1. In subsequent winters, the same pairs of penguins will reunite to breed as their mating calls are similar, and so familiar, to one another.

  1. Yes: This process, which begins at the onset (beginning, start) of the Antarctic winter, usually in March and April, includes a long journey inland (away from the coast) to the colonial nesting areas (place to find mate and reproduce).
  1. No: This involves placing their heads on their chests as they inhale deeply before emitting the mating call (this is part of the search). Once matched, a male and female will stand facing each other with their heads and necks stretched (this is part of the courtship).
  1. Not Given: Moreover, they will likely pair up again the following winter, as Emperor penguins are known to be monogamous and can recognize each other (How? Passage does not say. It might be by recognizing the call, but do not assume) in the colony

Remember, paraphrased sentences are often wrongly interpreted because the reader assumes certain elements of the original are present in the new sentence. Make sure that the same meaning and ideas can be drawn from both the original and the paraphrased sentences.

Now, let’s look at how this applies as a skill in writing. Most notably, paraphrasing is an essential component of the summary. A summary’s purpose is to take a longer passage (whether a written or spoken one) and shorten it much as possible while maintaining all the necessary information to convey the intended meaning and aim of the original. In this case, then, restatements will not work because the summary will be a retelling of the original, not a summary per se; also, it will likely be as long as the original, thereby defeating the purpose of writing it.

Paraphrasing allows the writer to reposition certain ideas so as to package similar ideas under the banner of one topic per paragraph. This allows the writer to use loaded sentences that can carry a lot of information without having to expand on any of them. A summary does not require too many, if any, details. With this in mind, paraphrasing allows the writer to decide for himself how to structure the information into as brief, yet complete, a summary as possible.

Look again at the paragraph on the emperor penguin. Now look at a summary of that paragraph:

Once it reaches maturity, an Emperor penguin will begin a lengthy mating process, which involves finding and keeping a mate within the colony.

Try writing your own. There is no perfect summary, so don’t worry too much about what you include. If you think you have delivered the gist of the original, then you have successfully summarized the passage.