SOUNDS FAMILIAR

John Sutherland

Academics like me are skilled users of turnitin.com. Never heard of it? Ask the nearest undergraduate and watch their cheek blanch. Turnitin is the trade’s leading ‘plagiarism detector’. You upload the student’s essay or dissertation and it’s checked against trillions of words and phrases in seconds. Irritatingly, however, Turnitin turns in a lot of zombie quotes. Say, for example, a student opens an essay thus:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Dickens, well aware that he lived in neither the best nor the worst of times, was more tolerant than his Vanityfairean rival of ‘great men’. For Thackeray no man was a hero to his valet.

The detector is quite likely to claim six hits here. Should the conscientious student have appended footnotes citing Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Ecclesiastes, John Bunyan, Carlyle, Goethe?

We think of our use of language as ‘fluency’. There are, however, congealed lumps floating in it and, if we look beneath the surface, often more lumps than liquidity. Put another way, most language is pre-owned. The previous owners are, as Gary Morson instructs us, often worth knowing about. Take, for example (not one of Morson’s examples), the indisputably most famous and quoted line in English literature, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’.

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The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture
By Gary Saul Morson (Yale University Press 352pp £20)

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