In the past, it was common for students to imitate the works of masters. Apprentice painters attempted to replicate great works of art. Novice writers patterned their sentences after passages that stirred them. Some teachers still encourage this method and in some countries, students are expected to reproduce experts’ words. And yet teachers are adamantly against plagiarism. It may sound like a contradiction, but there is a distinct difference between the two.

The Problem of Plagiarism

“Most plagiarism,” states the University of Kentucky’s webpage on the topic, “is willful, a sort of theft [but it] is possible to plagiarize unintentionally.” Whether purposeful or accidental, plagiarism is a serious offense. Schools across the country take a hard line against copying others’ words and ideas without properly acknowledging the source. After school, plagiarism can result in job loss and a damaged reputation. Most of us understand the basic concept: if you use someone’s words in your own work, you must say who you are quoting and surround the quoted passage with quotation marks or, for long quotes, put them in block format. A citation is usually also required.

Restructuring Sentences

What people often don’t realize is that, even if you completely change the wording, using another writer’s sentence structure while conveying his or her ideas is also plagiarism. The problem arises from a limited understanding of paraphrasing that suggests you need only substitute synonyms for important words, change the verb tense, or reorder phrases. All of these are false and may lead to a plagiarism charge. Rather, you must completely change the sentence structure so that neither the wording nor the grammatical pattern resembles the original. Thus, if you paraphrased the opening of the above quote -- without quotation marks -- as "Quite often plagiarism is intentional, a type of stealing," you would be guilty of plagiarizing. However, if you wrote, "Although plagiarism is considered stealing, many still decide to do it," you would have correctly paraphrased.

Imitation Exercises

Where does that leave imitation? Many fine writers learned their craft by literally copying the words of admired writers, to understand how their sentences were structured and paced. This was practice work -- a key distinction of imitation. They did not copy to be published, and didn't put their names on another person's work, but used imitation to learn their craft. Another practice method is to imitate the sentence structure of a master writer’s passage, substituting your own subject matter and wording. Imitating to learn has regained popularity, acknowledges Professor Donna Gorrell of St. Cloud State University, and many teachers use this approach.

Legal Imitation

Parody is one example of imitation that may be legitimately published under your own name. A parody, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says, is created when a "work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule." Similarly, you might borrow an existing work's plot as "The Wiz" is borrowed from "The Wizard of Oz" to create a new work. The bottom line is that both approach and intention must be considered in rightly dividing between imitation and plagiarism, and imitated work should be acknowledged.