Brackets in Quotes – Usage & Examples

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

When I teach students how to quote blend, they often need help making a quote work with their writing. Integrating a quote into a sentence in a way that flows can be challenging, but did you know that you can change the tense and add words to make this easier?

There are different types of brackets, and they are versatile in their uses, but the square bracket, in particular, is extremely helpful when it comes to adding quotes to your material. Quotes help clarify and support your opinions and arguments, and using them properly is the difference between writing that is dull and writing that is engaging and clear.

The Importance of Quotations

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Quotes are best used in a direct manner to represent another person’s exact words, written or spoken, to help clarify your argument or opinion. They can be used as evidence and are the best option when attempting to create support in your writing.

Quotes are enclosed within quotation marks, a simple punctuation mark, that signify the words within them are not your own. Whatever falls within the quotation marks should be exactly the same as the original source.

Quotes are also best used when integrated into your own sentences, which is where brackets come in handy.

Why Are Brackets Used in Quotes?

Brackets help you use your words to clarify or alter the tense within a direct quote. Brackets are used in a quotation to show that what is enclosed in them is not part of the original quote. This is extremely helpful when you need to add a quote into your own sentences, but it requires additional information for your reader to understand its use.

But, since there are three types of brackets, which one should be used?

Rounded brackets, commonly known as parentheses, aren’t used within a quote unless they are already part of it. Angle brackets are rare and only used in unique instances; they also will not be seen in a quote unless they are part of the original text.

This leaves the square bracket our go-to for quotation use.

How to Use Square Brackets in Quotes

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Square brackets are used to make a direct quote more understandable to your reader by adding materials that define, simplify, or clarify the context. They modify the original text and signify that the addition is not the work of the original author.

Brackets are used in a quotation to show the following information:

To Replace Something

Brackets often replace pronouns or undefined words in a quote to help the reader understand what they are referring to.

For example:

  • “There is no way [Mary] will be able to pass that class.”

In this example, “Mary” replaces the pronoun “she.”

  • “[The exam] took me three hours to complete!”

In this example, “the exam” replaces “it.”

To Explain Something

Brackets often follow a pronoun or undefined word and contain a definition or clarification for the reader to understand the reference. Rather than replace a word, the quote is left intact, and the brackets provide a clarifying addition.

For example:

  • “There is no way she [Mary] will be able to pass that class.”
  • “It [the exam] took me three hours to complete!”

To Show Omitted Text

Brackets that contain ellipsis indicate that the quote has been simplified, and the text has been omitted from the original quote. This is important to do when a longer quote contains important information, but not all of it is relevant.

For example:

  • “Bombs dropped during the war became commonplace […] and before too long seeking shelter was daily occurrence.”

The ellipsis indicates the removal of the following text: “; the sounds they made warned of their approach…”

To Indicate Errors

Authors make errors in grammar and spelling, but you cannot alter a direct quote, so it must contain the original text, errors, and all. In order to let your reader know that the error is not yours, you can place sic in brackets following the error.

Sic means “thus it is written” in Latin and places blame where it belongs!

For example:

  • “A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rater [sic] a person with a certain set of attitudes.”

To Add Emphasis

It can be difficult to indicate tone in the written text if taken directly from speech. How a person speaks often includes an emphasis on certain words or important points. When dictated into text, the writer can include an emphasis on certain words or phrases using italics or bolded text as long as they include in brackets they have done this.

For example:

  • “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams [emphasis added] no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

To Translate a Foreign Language

If a direct quote includes foreign speech that may be confusing to a reader, contain the translation within brackets.

For example:

  • She looked around the strange town and started in surprise when she heard her native language rapidly behind her, ”Pardon, juffrouw, heeft u tijd? [Excuse me miss, do you have the time?]”

To Change Tense

Blending quotes is the best way to use them in your own written materials, but they can be tricky to use if they have a different tense. This doesn’t mean you should abandon them or heavily censor content. Instead, you can add or replace words and alter the tense with the help of a bracket to create an understandable sentence structure.

For example:

  • Despite the difficulty of our loss, Sharon always told me how important it was to be positive when she said, “love the light for it shows the way [while] endur[ing] the darkness because it shows the stars.”

To Show a Change in Case

When you blend a quote into a sentence, occasionally, the cases don’t match, and you need to alter the quote with either a lowercase or capital letter.

For example:

  • The second item on the agenda stated that “[e]mployees meet with advisory committees to determine job fair opportunities.”

To Censor

When quoting a passage that includes foul language that may not be suitable for the audience, you can provide an alternative within brackets.

For example:

  • She pointed a finger at him, exclaiming that “he needed to get the [expletive] off” her front lawn, and that’s when I came inside to call the police.

Let’s Review

Although there are multiple types of brackets, the square bracket is reserved for use in direct quotations to help clarify or alter the materials. Their use allows the reader to understand that what is contained within them is not part of the original quote.

They can be used in many ways to replace or explain information within a text or indicate changes you may have to make to provide reading fluency.