Friday, October 27, 2017
You can't plagiarize by accident
Suppose there is a language with ten nouns and ten intransitive verbs. Speakers of this language only use two word sentences like "lion sleeps" or "man eats." So there are 100 possible sentences in the language. The chances that two sentences will be identical, then, is 1 in 100. The chances that two consecutive sentences will coincide are 1/1000. And so on. (Image two people in rooms 100 miles apart who are asked to write essay in this language.) Of course in a corpus of billions of words you will find identical stretches of language, and these will occur according to the probabilities we can easily calculate.
Now let's say that the language gets many more types of words, and more in each category, and that sentence length is indefinite, and patterns of syntax more varied. Now we have 20,000 words, not 20, so I can't even run the percentages any more: they are too vast. See two short stories by Borges, "Pierre Menard" and "The Library at Babel" for more insight into this. See Chomsky on the creativity of language.
In our musical system there are twelve notes. I used to wonder why we didn't run out of new melodies. After all, the possibilities are finite. It is true that many melodies contain identical sequences of notes in some stretches, but it is not hard to write new melodies.
The idea that your language forces you to say certain things and not others, then, needs to be re-examined. You can follow all the rules of syntax and still come up with original combinations.
Plagiarism by accident happens when you literally copy and paste something and leave the quotation marks off, and then come back to your text and lose track of whose language is whose. It is an accident but it is still your fault. Aside from the carelessness of not marking the language as quoted, there is another issue: you should have a pride in your prose that would make someone else's language stick out when inserted therein. Sometimes I look at a guest post by Thomas on this blog and think for a second or two: oh, that is strange, I don't write like this, before realizing that, no, I don't write like that. Thomas writes very well, but differently than I do. There are posts I don't remember writing, but I recognize them as my writing.
I guess poets with cookie cutter styles might have this problem.