Plagiarism and “Common Knowledge”

When we talk about plagiarism, some things are obvious, including the fact that when you directly quote someone or something, you need to include the source of the quote.

But what about when you’re writing without the use of a specific source, condensing the knowledge you’ve gained from books, articles, films, etc. into a piece with your name as the author? That’s when it’s time to learn about the connection between “common knowledge” and plagiarism.

According to an article on “Academic Integrity” from MIT:

Broadly speaking, common knowledge refers to information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up. This includes:

Information that most people know, such as that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or that Barack Obama was the first American of mixed race to be elected president.

Information shared by a cultural or national group, such as the names of famous heroes or events in the nation’s history that are remembered and celebrated.

Knowledge shared by members of a certain field, such as the fact that the necessary condition for diffraction of radiation of wavelength from a crystalline solid is given by Bragg’s law.

However, what may be common knowledge in one culture, nation, academic discipline or peer group may not be common knowledge in another.

To keep reading, click here.

Collective Nouns: The Rolling Stones

I recently copy edited a book on the Rolling Stones, and for any fellow editors and writers who run across a situation in which a collective noun appears plural on the page, I wanted to share my research and save you some trouble …

First things first: This research is only for users of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Other style guides, including Associated Press (AP), do it differently.

Per CMS (edition 17, section 5.5), a collective noun “refers to a group or collection of people or things {a crowd of people} {a flock of birds} {a herd of rhinos}.”

Obviously, a band is a collective noun. It refers to a group of musicians.

Per CMS, collective nouns take singular verbs. For instance, “The crowd was rowdy” or “The flock is flying south,” not “The crowd were rowdy” or “The flock are flying south.”

Also, “The band is playing tonight.”

Here’s where it gets tricky …

The Rolling Stones is the name of a band—a collective noun. But “Stones” looks plural. So your first instinct will likely be to use a plural verb. If you’re working with CMS as your style guide, however, that instinct would be incorrect.

Per CMS 5.15, “Names of companies, institutions, and similar entities are generally treated as collective nouns—and hence singular in American English, even when they are plural in form {General Motors reports that it will earn a profit} {American Airlines has moved its headquarters} [italics added].”

This means that when you have a collective noun, you use a singular verb—even if the noun looks plural:

  • The Rolling Stones is one of the longest touring bands.
  • The Beastie Boys has won numerous awards.
  • The Beatles was on its way to America.

As you can see, it feels very strange to read/type singular verbs with a word ending in “s,” but if you’re working to align with CMS, this is the way to go.

Q. It grates on my ear to listen to the BBC (particularly sports) newscasts talk about countries in the plural form, e.g., “England are preparing for next week’s match.” Can this be correct? I only began noticing it a couple of years ago, and I seem to recall that the practice even extends to cities or team names (Bayern Munich are out of the playoffs . . .). Your assistance would be much appreciated. 

A. The British are much more likely to consider collectives in the plural rather than the singular. I first remember noticing this when reading about English rock bands back in the seventies (the Who are the loudest rock band in the world; Led Zeppelin, some say, have sold their souls). Fowler’s points out this difference between American and British usage at various points. In American English this usage has largely disappeared. (CMS online Q&A on “Usage and Grammar”)

Trusting Your Editor

When working with a client, I’m looking to create a collaboration, a joint effort, a partnership.

In short, I want to work with you, rather than for you.

This, of course, implies a level of trust, and I know that doesn’t come easily, especially if you’ve ever had a bad experience with another editor—or even no experience at all.

One simple way to build trust in your editor is to get an idea of their previous work experience, whether through their resume, references, or a list of other projects they’ve worked on. Do they turn in their work on time? Are they experienced in your project’s genre? Do they have a positive attitude? When you are able to verify that they know what they’re doing—and that people have good things to say about them—it can help calm your fears.

To build trust with your editor, be honest. From the beginning, you should let the editor know your timeline, your budget, your overall goal, and how hard you’re willing to work. Those should match the editor’s schedule, billing requirements, and skillset. The better the match, the better the outcome.

Finally, you can build trust between you and your editor by asking questions. I thrive when a client is eager to discuss ideas, put serious time into revisions, and/or ask about the changes I’m suggesting. All of those things show me how excited the client is, which in turn makes me excited!

Starting any new relationship can be scary, but working with a good editor should lift you up, make you believe in your work, and ultimately help you tackle the project at hand with confidence.