When to Use Square Brackets […] – With 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.

Of the four types of brackets found in English punctuation marks, the square bracket is amongst the most popular. Alongside the parentheses, the square bracket works to separate words within text for added detail and information. 

The difference between parenthesis and bracket use is important, as each separates different types of information. With plenty of examples, read on to see how to use a square bracket properly. 

What Are Square Brackets Used For?

Square brackets […], also called brackets, are punctuation marks used to alter or add information to quoted material. They are always used in pairs and help offset information from the rest of a sentence in order to add information or detail. This is similar to how you use parentheses (also called round brackets). However, square and round brackets can’t be used interchangeably.

What is the Difference Between Square Brackets and Parentheses?

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Square brackets are almost exclusively used within quotation marks to help make a quotation clearer or easier to understand. They offset words that help clarify, emphasize, or correct a direct quotation. 

A parenthesis is a type of bracket also known as a round bracket. They are used to offset words in texts to add additional information and detail. The words found between parentheses are unnecessary for understanding the passage, whereas brackets are often needed for a reader to understand the quote. 

The two other types of brackets are angle brackets (also known as chevrons) and curly brackets (also known as braces or curly braces). 

Rules of Square Bracket Use 

There are some very specific rules to bracket use. These rules and examples provide the information you need to use correctly in your writing and help make quoted material understandable and relevant. 

Rule #1

Use brackets to clarify nouns and pronouns in a quote that are unclear.

For Example

  • He clearly stated that “there would be no merger with the [solar farm] company due to their poor weed management practices that used highly toxic weed control that ruined the soil.”

Rule #2

Use brackets to translate a foreign word or phrase in a quote. 

For Example

  • Despite taking four years of German in High School, she “struggled with basic greetings when in the country, often replying ich weiss nicht [I don’t know] when spoken to in the native dialect.”

Rule #3

Use brackets to indicate the change of the first letter of quoted material from uppercase to lowercase or vice versa. 

For Example

  • In 1913 her grandfather “[a]rrived alone at the age of 12 in Ellis Island to reunite with his family who had traveled to the coal mines of New Mexico.”

Rule #4

Use brackets surrounding the Latin term sic, meaning “thus” or “so,” to indicate an error or unusual word usage in a quote. This indicates the original writer included the error. 

For Example

  • Our local horse racing track held “amateur jackpots each Thursday, Friday, and evry [sic] other Saturday morning.” 

You can also use a correction of the original material, complete with a question mark if you are guessing at the correction.

For Example

  • “The history professor has traveled the world, including remote places like the Kerglen Islands [Kerguelen Islands?].

Rule #5

Use brackets to indicate when you change a quote to emphasize a specific portion of the passage.

For Example

  • The professor shared his concerns over how many students “were apathetic to the learning process and were willing to throw away their tuition money when they skipped class [emphasis added].”

Rule #6

Use brackets to censor any inappropriate materials found in the original text. 

For Example

  • She lost her cool with the group, telling them to “sit the [expletive] down.”

Rule #7

Use brackets inside parentheses to replace parentheses inside parentheses. 

For Example

  • We traveled exclusively by car when the children were young (so we could stop [exposing them to more history] whenever we wanted). 

When to Use Brackets for References:

Brackets are occasionally used in referencing and footnote indication. Always be sure to check with the style guide you are using for the proper use and any applicable updates when using brackets in this manner. 

For example, in APA style guides you may see brackets used to indicate the following, 

  • Identifying the context of publication (such as a thesis or dissertation)
  • Identifying a source (such as artwork, social media, or brochures)
  • Indicating when a source does not have a page number (such as video, mobile app, or chat thread)
  • Providing translations of titles from another language

The use of a bracket in these scenarios allows the reader to know that the information provided does not appear in the actual work, but is accurate none-the-less. 

Footnotes also appear after information as [1], [2], and [3] where appropriate to provide reference to the reader where they can find the actual citation of the material used. Always separate the numbers with brackets rather than include them in one long list when more than one is required. 

Square Bracket Examples in Writing

Brackets are an acceptable punctuation mark to use in both formal and informal use when quoting materials. 

And another: “Perhaps somebody will take the hint and explain [the purpose of square brackets].” (The Guardian)

While on the topic of doubt, why oh why did anyone doubt MWD’s assessment that Morry Schwartz’s The [Boring] Saturday Paper is, well, boring? (The Australian)

Let’s Review

Square brackets, also called brackets, are one of four different types of brackets used to offset words in various texts. Square brackets are commonly used for quoted material to help define and bring clarification of direct quotations to readers. Be sure to refer to the rules associated with their use to help make your writing understandable and more concise.