Citation as a Basic Function of Language

Citation as a Basic Function of Language Image

In 2016, we looked at the idea of writing in a cleanroom and how citation and attribution is part of the writing process, not the editing process. 

Two years later, in 2018, we looked at the idea of citation and code-switching and how, as we change the way we communicate based on the audience, we also change the way we cite.

However, these ideas converge into a singular point: Citation isn’t just an ethical obligation; it’s also a core function of grammar and language. Being able to indicate which words and thoughts are our own versus what came from others is a key aspect of communication.

Teaching that skill as a writing skill can help students understand not only how citation works and why it’s essential, but make the process of including citations natural and automatic.

If we want to teach citation and discourage plagiarism, we can’t simply tell students it’s a responsibility and will face punishment if they don’t. We have to show why it’s a fundamental part of writing and communication. 

Why Citation is Important

The citation discussion is still too often framed as being a matter of ethics or duty. If you don’t cite, you’re a plagiarist and may face dire consequences.

The problem with that argument is that it doesn’t mesh with experiences students face outside the classroom. Post a meme on Facebook or Instagram? No one calls you a plagiarist if it’s not attributed. Post a video on TikTok? You likely don’t attribute the song or the dance.

It can be jarring for students to spend much of their day sharing content without citation and never face any consequences only to be warned of dire ones when doing so in the classroom.

Until teachers can explain this dichotomy, encouraging proper citation is going to be an uphill battle. However, fixing that problem will mean shifting the focus of plagiarism away from the ethics, and onto the implications citation has for communication.

Citation as Function of Communication

Citation as a Basic Function of Language Image

The purpose of citation isn’t merely to give credit where credit is due or bolster arguments, even though it does both things.

Instead, citation is intended to indicate the words and ideas that are not yours and make them stand apart from the ones that are. This form of highlighting is something we do all of the time, even in the most casual environments.

For example, if I’m going to tell a joke to a friend, I will likely preface it with, “Do you want to hear a joke I read/heard?” 

That simple statement has a complex meaning. In addition to asking if the other person wants to hear a joke (which from me they likely don’t), it makes it clear I didn’t create the joke, even if I don’t recall where I heard it.

Outside of stand-up comedians and other professional joke-writers, we are not expected to come up with our jokes and mostly repeat things we’ve heard. This is how jokes are shared and passed down. Despite that norm, we commonly preface jokes and indicate they are not our creation.

In other environments, there is even less expectation of originality. Memes are an often-cited example as there is very little expectation the person sharing a meme created it. One of the things that make memes so viral is just how freely they can be shared. 

Academic writing, however, is the opposite. The expectation is that every word and every idea is original to the author unless indicated otherwise. This is why academic writing has the citation standard it does, not just to give credit, not only to leave a trail for others to follow but to indicate what is novel in the paper.

Citation isn’t just an ethical obligation; it is a core function of communication. Looking at it in that way makes it easier to see why citation rules change when communication methods change. That, in turn, may help students better adapt to academic writing and even apply the lessons they learn there to other kinds of writing they encounter.

Bottom Line

The truth is this: Everyone cites content all the time.

Whether it’s as simple as “Dave told me” or as complicated as an MLA footnote, we constantly attribute the words and ideas of others when we are communicating. It’s a natural part of all communication.

The trick is expanding that idea to cover academic writing. Academic citation standards can seem foreign and weird to students used to hyperlinks and @mentions, but they are part of the academic style of writing. 

Teaching citation not as an ethical obligation but a natural part of language and communication can help students understand why there are different standards and why they should follow the ones given to them.

It may seem like a small victory, but students that understand are more likely to follow the guidelines and even make them a habit. Students with the habit are much less likely to plagiarize, even when confronted with temptation.

This approach makes students better communicators AND better researchers. That, in the end, should be the goal for anyone teaching students how to write. 

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