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Paraphrasing, a Brief History

Updated Aug 7, 2021

The History of Paraphrasing

By Matthew

Paraphrasing was an important part of classical, medieval, and renaissance education. For many, rewording the texts of others was a way to gain understanding and expand vocabulary, and teachers often used paraphrasing exercises as easy ways to stimulate creativity in students and check for comprehension.

For the Greeks, there were many words to express how one might rephrase something, and these words were often quite specific. For instance, words like paraphemi, which means to speak gently to, euphemeo, to use words of good omen, or dusphemeo, to use ill or unlucky words.[^1]

Although the morphemes “para” and “phrase” come from Greek, combined to mean something like an additional way of telling or saying something, paraphrasing became a more contrived academic exercise in the Roman world. We find one of the first academic examples of paraphrase in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria[^2], written around 95CE for educating children in the art of public speaking. In it he writes,

"Their pupils should learn to paraphrase Aesop's fables, the natural successors of the fairy stories of the nursery, in simple and restrained language and subsequently to set down this paraphrase in writing with the same simplicity of style: they should begin by analysing each verse, then give its meaning in different language, and finally proceed to a freer paraphrase in which they will be permitted now to abridge and now to embellish the original, so far as this may be done without losing the poet's meaning."

In this short passage, Quintilian outlines what would become a paradigm for learning how to paraphrase throughout the middle ages and renaissance, exercises that would enable students to simplify texts, shorten them, expand them, and ‘embellish’ them.

A master of the art of paraphrase was Shakespeare himself[^3], including in such famous lines as, ‘all the world’s a stage,’ which has an ancient precedent in a Greek saying, ‘The whole of life is a theater’ (skene pas ho bios).[^4] In the broadest sense of paraphrase, that of adapting one type of work to another, one could argue that Shakespeare’s plays are grand, complex, and highly rhetorical paraphrases of the chronicles he adapted from.

The Art of Paraphrasing is no longer a very popular one,[^5] and unlike in the grammar schools of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, students no longer have to master this skill as they would a multiplication table. Students do not receive specific exercises such as this, and with the advent of plagiarism checkers, paraphrases that are not quoted are considered plagiarized. It is certainly plagiarism to pass off one’s work as your own, but paraphrasing can be a useful exercise to practice, allowing information and concepts to percolate through your thinking as you reformulate and rephrase them in your own words.

A good paraphrase can be a stylistic change or improvement or an interpretation of the original meaning. The best paraphrases clarify what is obscure, tighten what is too wordy, and cohere what seems disconnected or lost in communication.

It is only very recently that it has become possible to paraphrase online, using rewording tools, and paraphrase generators. Some of these online paraphrases will only reflect changed out words, while others will include changes to the entirety of a sentence.

To learn more, check out this paraphrase how to guide; it's always good to see examples of paraphrase, so you know what to expect.


[^1]: Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., & McKenzie, R. (1996). A Greek - English lexicon. Clarendon Press.

[^2]: Quintilianus, M. F., & Butler, H. E. (1995). Institutio Oratoria. Harvard University Press.

[^3]: Joseph, M. (2013). Shakespeare's use of the arts of language. Martino Publishing.

[^4]: Attributed first to Democritus, and then to Palladas. Symonds, J. A. (2013). Studies of the greek poets. Theclassics Us.

[^5]: D'Angelo, F. (1979). The Art of Paraphrase. College Composition and Communication, 30(3), 255–259.

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