Paraphrase vs. Summary

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks for clarification of the difference between a paraphrase and a summary:

I was in a large classroom with other teachers when the science teacher told the students to read a 2-page article and then to “paraphrase it [in] three sentences.” What the teacher should have said was to “summarize” the article in that length, whereas a paraphrase is not necessarily a shortening of an article but a rewording.

The reader is correct.

A summary is a brief summing up of the main points of a statement or narrative.

A paraphrase is the rewording of something written or spoken, especially with the aim of making the sense clearer. A paraphrase may be longer, shorter, or of the same length as the original passage.

I’ll give examples of each, using familiar sources.

Summary of the film The Wizard of Oz (1939)
When her Kansas farmhouse is swept up by a tornado and falls into an enchanted land called Oz, killing a witch, Dorothy Gale incurs the wrath of the dead witch’s sister. Befriended by a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion, she survives the witch’s attempts to kill her and succeeds in returning to her home in Kansas.

Paraphrase of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet, Act III, scene 1.
The question facing me is, “Should I go on living or kill myself?” Would it be more virtuous to put up with my problems or end them by suicide? Dying is like a final sleep, a sleep that puts an end to the troubles that living entails, a desirable final resolution to it all. But what if the sleep of death brings dreams? There’s the catch. Death may be scarier than life. That’s why a long life is a bad thing. Nobody would be willing to suffer all the pain and humiliation of living year after year knowing that he could be rid of it all with a dagger thrust. The only reason people don’t escape the misery of living by killing themselves is that they’re afraid the afterlife will be worse. Because we don’t know what happens after death, we choose to put up with our problems rather than face the unknown. Even if a person decides to kill himself, thinking about the unknown consequences makes him change his mind and go on living.

Both skills, summary and paraphrase, are extremely useful. They do require practice.

Related post:
The Whys and Hows of Paraphrasing

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