by Clint Johnson
“Intertextuality” is the term for how the meaning of one text changes when we relate it to another text. It is one way to understand how writing is contingent upon other factors: in this case, how another text influences the way we understand, or struggle to understand, a given text.
Scholars debate the extent and significance of intertextuality in how we understand language. Some literary theorists argue that any text is just a combination of other texts. Julia Kristeva, for example, writes, “Any text is the absorption and transformation of another.”
How you typically experience intertextuality in your reading and writing is likely to be far simpler than such theories suggest. After all, texts combine with other texts all the time to create meaning, and they do so in specific ways. Understanding these ways helps us better understand what we read and better achieve our goals when we write.
What it is: When one text uses ideas and words of another text.
How to do it: A quotation is literally copied language from one text that is used in another. The copied words are put within quotation marks to show the language originally comes from another source. The source is also cited.
Why do it: Quotation is common in many genres because it allows us to adopt others’ language for a variety of purposes. We quote others for their eloquent use of language, or to distance ourselves from statements we need to communicate but do not want to own, or to acknowledge the existence of other perspectives and voices. As a general rule, we only quote when both the words and ideas of a source are valuable to our writing.
According to The New York Times, “Things have gotten worse. Much worse.”
“I never really thought about it that way,” admitted Gerald Henshaw, the driver of the train.
“There is no such answer,” says psychologist Joanne Wardell, who adds, “and looking for one simply increases frustration.”
“Walk softly and carry a big stick.” This famous saying from former President Theodore Roosevelt is a fine summation of the man. Roosevelt is likely the brashest president in American history. His personal mantra—“Get action. Do things; be sane”—illustrates his voracious appetite for activity and productivity. Yet, Kathleen Dalton with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History describes him as “a man full of contradictions.” He condemned censorship of political criticism as “morally treasonable to the American public” yet regarded those who opposed him as corrupt or weak—in Roosevelt’s own words, possessing “the spine of a chocolate eclair.” Yet his complexity arose from utter confidence in both himself and the destiny of America. “We can have no 50–50 allegiance in this country,” he proclaimed. “Either a man is an American and nothing else, or he is not American at all.”
What it is: When one text includes ideas from another text put in new words.
How to do it: When paraphrasing, a writer uses their own language to communicate an idea found in another text. Paraphrasing does not require quotation marks because the words are not borrowed from another source. Paraphrasing references specific ideas from a text rather than all ideas in the text. The original source is cited.
Why do it: We paraphrase others to give credit or assign responsibility for ideas and to use others’ identities in our writing. Paraphrasing can also allow us to easily integrate important ideas from other sources into our writing without changing our style. This creates a consistent feel for the reader. As a general rule, we paraphrase whenever we wish to use the ideas of a source but don’t feel that the source’s words add additional value. We might also paraphrase if the source’s words somehow detract from our work, such as if their language is too technical or biased for our purposes.
The Declaration of Independence concludes with a formal announcement of independence from Britain that calls upon both God and the unanimity of the colonies to preserve that independence.
Batman sorrowfully recounts how the woman he loved, Rachel, promised to wait for him before she died.
America has defaulted on a check written to African Americans, according to Dr. Martin Luther King.
What it is: When one text uses the main ideas of another text in the order they are originally presented. The source is cited.
How to do it: A summary presents another text’s major ideas in their original order but without minor details. It essentially condenses a text, shrinking it down by communicating only the most important information. To preserve confidence that the writer summarizing the text hasn’t changed the meaning, summaries are typically written in an objective style. Summaries can be various lengths, from as short as a sentence to as long as needed without giving unnecessary detail.
Why do it: We summarize to give our reader a sense of another text in its entirety, at least in terms of main ideas, in a short time and space. As a general rule, we summarize whenever we wish to demonstrate that we comprehend a text’s overall meaning or when we ask a reader to interact with the text extensively in our writing.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker lives as a moisture farmer on the desert planet Tatooine but dreams of adventure in the galaxy. When his uncle purchases two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, carrying plans that can help the Rebel Alliance destroy the evil Galactic Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, Luke’s family is killed by Imperial troops searching for the plans. With the help of forgotten Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and smugglers Han Solo and the wookie Chewbacca, Luke successfully flees with the plans from Tatooine for Alderaan, seat of the Galactic Senate. On the trip, Obi-Wan begins to instruct Luke in the ways of the Force, an energy field that gives the Jedi order tremendous powers. After finding Alderaan destroyed by the Death Star, the heroes are captured. During an escape attempt, they discover Princess Leia, a high-ranking rebellion official, imprisoned on the Death Star. They rescue her, but Obi-Wan is killed by Darth Vader, a mechanical-suited former Jedi—and Obi-Wan’s former mentor—who has turned to the Dark Side of the Force and is now second in command of the Empire.
The Empire tracks the adventurers to Yavin 4, the hidden base of the rebellion. As the Death Star moves into position to destroy Yavin 4 and end the rebellion, Luke joins the resistance while Han and Chewbacca refuse. Referencing the plans hidden in the droid R2-D2, the rebellion launches an attack of small fighters designed to take advantage of the Death Star’s small and well-protected weakness: a shaft providing access to the huge machine’s core. During the assault, Han and Chewbacca unexpectedly join the battle and damage Vader’s fighter as it attacks Luke, giving him time to assault the shaft. The voice of Obi-Wan instructs Luke to trust the Force rather than his technological aiming system, and by doing so, he delivers the shot that destroys the Death Star. On Yavin 4, Princess Leia awards Luke, Han, and Chewbacca for their bravery with great celebration.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, farm boy Luke Skywalker is drawn into a rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire when his family is murdered. With the help of former Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi (who begins teaching Luke about the Force before being killed by the fallen Jedi Darth Vader) and smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca, he saves the rebel leader Princess Leia. With his new allies and blossoming powers using the Force, Luke destroys the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, bringing hope to the galaxy.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker begins to learn to use the Force and—with the help of former Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca, and rebel leader Princess Leia—he defeats the fallen Jedi Darth Vader and destroys the Empire’s awesome superweapon, the Death Star.
What is it: An indirect reference to another text.
How to do it: The writer does not quote, paraphrase, or in other ways explicitly communicate how the text alludes to, or indirectly connects to, what they are writing. Instead, they trust the reader to be able to identify the connection using their own knowledge.
Why do it: We allude to a text when we are confident our audience is familiar with the text mentioned. As a general rule, we allude when we want our reader to relate their own knowledge to what we are writing. If our readers are not familiar with the text we allude to, we will likely confuse them.
He’s her muse. [Greek mythology]
Avoid making this a personal Ides of March. [Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar]
I can MacGyver something, just give me a minute. [MacGyver TV series]
What it is: Specifying who originated a statement, idea, or text, either by authoring or publishing it. Occasionally, we attribute by citing a text’s title.
How to do it: Writers attribute by including the name of the person or organization that authored the text they are using in their piece. The name of the author of the original text is connected to the language or ideas the writer references. This may take the form of a parenthetical citation, a signal phrase (e.g., according to), or a speech tag (John says). Attribution is routinely combined with quotes, paraphrases, summaries, and more (but not allusion).
Why do it: We attribute when we want readers to know where a statement or idea comes from or who it belongs to. Attribution allows us to give people credit for their work, to use others’ credibility in our own writing to increase our own authority, and to separate what we say and believe from what others say and believe. As a general rule, we always attribute the first time we reference a text and often again for texts we reference multiple times.
“I never really thought about it that way,” admitted Gerald Henshaw, the driver of the train.The Declaration of Independence concludes with a formal announcement of independence from Britain that calls upon both God and the unanimity of the colonies to preserve that independence.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker begins to learn to use the Force and with the help of former Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca, and rebel leader Princess Leia. He defeats the fallen Jedi Darth Vader and destroys the Empire’s awesome superweapon, the Death Star.
[Find more attributions in the rest of the example sections above.]
What plagiarism is: Using someone else’s words and/or ideas and, intentionally or unintentionally, passing them off as one’s own.
How NOT to do it: There are a number of ways to plagiarize, including quoting or paraphrasing without giving credit to the original author, failing to use quotation marks for language taken from other texts, summarizing without attributing, or using someone else’s reasoning or organizational structure as your own. When using exact language from a source, always put that language in quotation marks. Similarly, when using language or ideas from a source, use attribution to give credit to the author of the text. At Salt Lake Community College we stress that writers should never plagiarize intentionally and must be willing to correct unintentional plagiarism if it occurs by revising their writing.
Why NOT do it: In the United States and much of the rest of the world, especially the west, words and ideas are considered intellectual property, similar in many regards to physical property. Because language and ideas can be trademarked, much like inventions, using them without obeying fair-use rules is considered theft. Plagiarism is a dishonest act and is considered a form of cheating in the academic and professional worlds. While plagiarism is a serious academic offense for which a student may fail an assignment or class, unintentional plagiarism will usually be met with correction and instruction on how to ethically and effectively reference other texts. Intentional plagiarism is cheating and will not be tolerated.
Dalton, Kathleen. “Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Progressive Reformer.” History Now, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/politics-reform/essays/theodore-roosevelt-making-progressive-reformer
Golodryga, Brianna. “‘No More Backbone Than a Chocolate Eclair’: The Best Political Insults of All Time.” The Huffington Post, 2 Nov. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/bianna-‘golodryga/no-more-backbone-than-a-c_b_12774594.html
Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Edited by Toril Moi. Columbia University Press, 1986.
“Theodore Roosevelt Quotes.” Brainyquote, n.d., www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/theodorero122699.html