Sometimes when a person uses someone else’s quotation in their writing, they will want to use their own comments to clarify an ambiguous part of the quote. Brackets should be used to enclose the comments. It’s important that these comments in no way change or influence the meaning of the quotation and are used only for clarification. Other uses of brackets in quotations include making modifications, noting added emphasis, noting an error, noting a translation, replacing an expletive, and more.
Use brackets to clarify a certain part of a quotation
Use brackets to clarify a word or words in a quotation. In the quotations below, the bracketed material is used to clarify the meaning of the pronouns he, it, and she.
- The caregiver asked, “Does he [your father] need help feeding himself?”
- The policeman shouted to the bank robber, “Put it [the gun] down now!”
- “She [the prosecutor] can’t prove I did it,” whispered the defendant to his lawyer.
Modifying part of a quotation
You can use brackets to modify part of a quotation so that it better fits the grammatical flow of a sentence. This can be done by changing the case of a word, changing a verb tense or changing a pronoun.
Changing case of a word
Use brackets to change a capital letter to a lowercase letter (or vice versa) so the quotation fits into the grammatical flow of the sentence.
- “The board of directors will meet on Tuesday.”
- The CEO has confirmed that “[t]he board of directors will meet on Tuesday.”
Changing verb tense
Brackets can be used to change the verb tense in a quotation to ensure correct subject-verb agreement in the new sentence.
- “I have always made sure to eat healthy food.”
- The fitness instructor stated that she “[has] always made sure to eat healthy food.”
Changing a pronoun
Use brackets to change a pronoun so that it fits the grammatical person of the sentence.
- “I have always made sure to chew my food slowly.”
- The elderly woman remarked that she “has always made sure to chew [her] food slowly.”
Noting added emphasis to a quotation
If you wanted to add emphasis to part of a quotation by using italics, you should note that the emphasis is not part of the original quotation. It is common practice to use the words “emphasis added,” “emphasis mine,” “italics added,” or “italics mine” to make the notation.
If the change is noted within the quotation itself, it should be enclosed in brackets to make clear that the change was made by the writer and not part of the original quotation.
- In our professor’s literary analysis of the poem, Dr. Hall asserts that the “narrator soon learns the raven has come to stay, and that he’ll never be free of longing for his lost love, Lenore [italics added].”
Noting an error in a quotation
Sometimes a quotation will contain an error, such as a spelling error or a grammatical error. To preserve the quotation exactly as it was written, enclose sic (Latin for “thus, so”) in brackets immediately following the error, indicating that the error was not made by the writer but is part of the original quotation. Note that sic is usually italicized but not always.
- She gave this written confession: “He ran into the kitchen, picked up a craving [sic] knife off the counter, and ran toward me with it.”
- The chess player said to his opponent, “It’s you’re [sic] turn.”
- “Every one of the accountants were [sic] at the meeting,” said the secretary.
Noting a translation in a quotation
If a foreign word appears in a quotation, you can provide a translation enclosed in brackets to make clear to the reader that you’ve added the translation yourself.
- The Japanese exchange student ended her speech by saying, “I would just like to say, dōmo arigatō [thanks a lot] to all of you for welcoming me to your school!”
Note: If you want to use a foreign word or phrase within your own (unquoted) writing, you can put the translation in parentheses, as below.
- The only words I know how to say in Spanish are muchas gracias (thank you very much).
Replacing an expletive
Sometimes a quotation will contain vulgar, offensive, or objectionable words. You can use brackets to enclose the word “expletive” or words “expletive deleted” in place of the offensive word or words.
- “My first grade teacher was a horrible [expletive],” he told his parents, “though she taught me many valuable lessons.”
Sometimes it is customary to put the bracketed replacement in all capital letters, especially in more formal writing, such as in court transcripts.
- The witness told the court that she “saw the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] steal money from the blind man on more than one occasion.”
Inserting an ellipsis
Another use for Brackets is enclosing ellipsis points, which are used to indicate that some of the words of a quotation have been omitted. This is done when including all of the words of the quotation would be redundant and unimportant to the meaning of your sentence. Great care should be taken when omitting parts of a quotation so that its meaning is not changed in any way.
- Original passage: In the movie Slingblade, the character played by actor Billy Bob Thornton suffers from developmental disabilities, as seen in the way he speaks with a jutting jaw and grunts at the end of his sentences.
- Passage with omission: Sometimes Hollywood perpetuates stereotypical attitudes about mental disorders, such as developmental disabilities in Slingblade, when “actor Billy Bob Thornton [. . .] speaks with a jutting jaw and grunts at the end of his sentences.
Using brackets to insert nested parenthetical elements
Sometimes a sentence will contain a large parenthetical element with one or more smaller parenthetical elements inside it. Typically, the smaller parenthetical element is enclosed in brackets to distinguish it from the larger parenthetical element.
- I plan to have plenty of money for my vacation this summer. (My wife got me a job at her father’s [my father-in-law’s] restaurant.)
Noting that brackets are in the original quotation
If bracketed material is used in the original quotation, it must be noted outside the quotation so the reader does not mistake it as being added by the writer. Enclose the notation in parentheses.
- According to Levin: “In Neil Armstrong’s famous quote ‘That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,’ Armstrong mistakenly left out the word “a” before the word “man.” (Brackets in original; Levin, 119.)