I said I was done with the Cassie Edwards portion of this issue, and I am. But over at Dear Author, Janet raises the question about what is and is not plagiarism. It’s an interesting question, and one I don’t mind thinking about (the comment thread is also good because the hairy specter of fan fiction gets raised, though it doesn’t derail the essential issue). Because just yesterday, as I’m working on revisions, I wrote this line: If only there were world enough and time.

And then, because I’m hyper-sensitive to the issue now, I added this: as the poem said. Which seems clunky, but dammit, world enough and time is a phrase from someone else’s work. Simply a phrase, but a pretty famous one (not so famous as to be immediately recognizable to all, however, which is where my dilemma stems). From the 17th century, no less, so definitely out of copyright. Some folks have intimated that using sources out of copyright isn’t plagiarism, but I think all the English majors (at the very least) who read my line will instantly know where it came from. Maybe they’d get that I know it’s a reference. Maybe they’d think I was cribbing.

Truthfully, the line probably won’t stay, because the qualifier is going to bug me to no end and I’ll decide it isn’t worth it in the end. Here are the first few lines from the original, btw:

HAD we but world enough, and time / This coyness, Lady, were no crime / We would sit down and think which way / To walk and pass our long love’s day. (Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress.)

I Googled “world enough and time” and Marvell came up instantly. It’s four little words, but put together in such a way as to be recognizable. OTOH, in the comment thread to the post up above, people discuss pop culture phrases such as “Here’s Johnny!” and “the usual suspects.” What is fair use and what constitutes plagiarism?

Probably, my use of the phrase isn’t plagiarism and I can leave off the qualifier. It’s a phrase that’s moved into the lexicon, just like “we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “something’s rotten in Denmark” (that last being paraphrased, but recognizable nonetheless) and “sea change.” Probably, because those phrases are so recognizable, everyone knows you aren’t plagiarizing but are instead either paying homage or simply using words and phrases that people use in real life because they ARE so recognizable.

But still I second guess my choices. *sigh*

Have you had any second thoughts when you write something lately? If you write historicals, have you gone running to your research books to make sure you haven’t inadvertently lifted whole phrases? Have you deleted, reworded, or added qualifiers to protect yourself?