A Brace of Brackets [ ]

Brackets, brackets, who’s got the brackets?

Today’s post focuses on a more strict question of editing style than usual. It deals with the use of brackets [ ]  , sometimes also known as square brackets in American English.

Before I get into the depths of this post, here’s an abbreviated bestiary of the most common brackets and bracket-like punctuation marks:

( ) – These are parentheses (singular: parenthesis, but you almost never use one without following up with another). Use them to set apart information that’s not strictly required in the text (such as that previous comment, or this one). They’re also used extensively when showing in-text citations. In common use, they set apart things spoken, or thought, or relayed to the reader as asides; used in this way, they’re the textual equivalent of muttering under your breath. Most of us use parentheses all the time.

{ } – These are curly brackets, or  braces, or curly braces. They have specialized uses in programming and mathematics, and for highlighting purposes in typesetting. Other than that…most of us never use braces at all.

[ ] – These are brackets, or square brackets. Most of us use these only occasionally. They have several distinct but special uses, and that’s what I’m going to cover today.

(There are a few other kinds of brackets, but since their use in English is highly specialized and very uncommon – and because you can’t type them on your keyboard without extra codes – I’m going to pretend that they don’t exist.)

Excluding mathematical uses, in American English the primary use of the bracket [] is to show when text has been changed in a quote. For example:

I don’t drink water. Fish [swim] in it. – W. C. Fields

Using brackets like this is usually done to clarify the meaning, or to shorten a quotation. Or, in some cases, to clean up a quotation that isn’t acceptable in polite company (as I’ve done here with Fields: the unexpurgated correct quote can be found at the bottom of this post).

There’s a quote by Emerson that I use in my classes where he talks about the “warp and weft” of thought and words:

All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and weft of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.

To update the language so that a contemporary student can understand without stumbling, I might modify it this way:

All minds quote. Old and new [weave] every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.

“Warp and weft” are not exactly common terms to the typical college freshman. So I have taken the words “make the warp and weft of” and replaced them with “weave.” It’s perhaps not elegant, but changed in this way the quote is clear and it doesn’t lose the meaning of the original, which is of critical importance when working with quoted material. The brackets serve to indicate that something has been changed or left out, without undermining the intent of the quotation.

Once in awhile, you might need to use brackets to modify text to fit grammatically with the rest of a sentence. This might mean changing a pronoun or a verb ending. It’s not preferred, but if it’s not abused, you can do it. Here’s an example.

Let’s say the original text read this way:

I love all my children equally. – Bob Hill

But when using it, the constraints of my material forced me into a particular phrasing. In order to keep the original grammatically consistent with the new text, I might modify it this way:

In unpublished letters, Hill claimed that he “love[d] all [his] children equally.”

You can see clearly what was done here: the tense of “love” was corrected, and the pronoun “my” was shifted to “his.” Both modifications are shown in brackets [ ] to clearly indicate that the original has been modified. Again, I will stress that this is probably not the most elegant solution, and my example may not show the situation perfectly, but when used in small doses like this, brackets are not just acceptable but a good solution.

Chicago style recommends using brackets sparingly, and I agree. Here’s the kind of thing that can happen when you don’t:

Marissa Jordan, a sophomore art major, lived in Pierce Hall last year and often had trouble with noise keeping her awake. “This girl that live[d] next to me like[d] to play her music really loud and vibrate[d] my wall and [was] so loud that it sound[ed] like it [was] in my room,” Jordan said. “And she slam[med] her door [a lot]. Doesn’t matter what time it [was], she [would] open her door, slam it, stomp down the hallway to the lobby and five seconds later stomp back and slam her door again.”

That’s from a college newspaper article on student sleep habits. There are 10 bracketed changes (nine for tense, one mystery change to “a lot”) in a quotation of only 71 words. It’s easy to deduce what happened here, editorially: the original quote was in the present tense. The story was probably written the previous semester, and set aside for a slow news day. When its time came, instead of reworking the text, the editor clumsily corrected the tense using brackets.

What do I mean by reworking the text? The original quotation could have been used unchanged with a simple correction like this to the lead-in:

Last year, Marissa Jordan, a sophomore art major living in Pierce Hall, described trouble with noise keeping her awake.

By making changes like that at the outset, the rest of the quotation could follow, in the original present tense, with no bracketed modifications. Simple.

Besides making changes to tense and pronouns, you might occasionally need brackets to change case. Perhaps the original runs this way:

In any case, that’s not the kind of thing you should expect to encounter every day. – Francis P. Hypostyle, III

And your text uses it like this:

[T]hat’s not the kind of thing you should expect to encounter every day,” according to Hypostyle.

It’s the same as with tense changes: you’re using brackets to indicate a change that’s been made for grammatical reasons that doesn’t affect the meaning of the quotation.

Those are the most typical uses. As I’ve outlined it above, both Chicago and Garner note that brackets are used to show when the text presents words as “a stand in for missing or illegible words” (Chicago, 13.57/641) or when they “enclose comments, corrections, explanations, interpolations, notes, or translations that were not in the original text but have been added by subsequent authors, editors, or others” (Garner, 543).

All true, and there are also a few other unusual cases, such as when you’re using parentheses inside parentheses. Just as the standard is to change quotes inside a quotation to single quotes, it’s also recommended to change parentheses inside parentheses to brackets. Here’s an example that shows both:

“Tom said ‘if I catch you, I’ll kill you,'” said Bill. (Tom, in this case, was Big Tom  [Tom, Sr.], not Tom III or Tom, Jr., each of whom had previously threatened Bill.)

You don’t want to double quote inside a quotation: “Tom said “if I catch you, I’ll kill you”” is ugly and potentially confusing. You also don’t want to double parenthesize: (Tom, in this case, was Big Tom (Tom, Sr.)). It’s nice to know about this, but in common practice, most of us will rarely use brackets except when clarifying quotes.

One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about brackets is the AP Stylebook‘s approach to them. I’m occasionally dismissive of AP Style, because I believe that some of their recommendations are beginning to make journalistic writing a weird subdialect of English (…you probably thought it was television, the Internet, and the economics of print journalism that were killing newspapers, but maybe it’s because fewer and fewer people speak their language).

AP Style has this to say about brackets, which is surprising enough (and short enough) to reproduce in full:

     brackets [] They cannot be
transmitted over news wires. Use
parentheses or recast the material.
See parentheses. (AP Style, 373)

Note that this is not some pre-Internet version of the AP Stylebook, back when news organizations were manually typing things across a telex in real time and when fax machines were the pinnacle of technology. This is from the 2011 update. “Brackets cannot be transmitted over news wires.” With modern solutions like that, it’s no wonder new media is burying print journalism.

That’s my contribution for today, with one last note.

As promised above, here’s what Fields is really quoted as having said:

I don’t drink water. Fish fuck in it. – W. C. Fields

You can easily understand why some people would want to haul out the brackets!

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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3 Responses to A Brace of Brackets [ ]

  1. Pam Phillips says:

    Where did you get that form of the W.C. Fields quote? I remember learning it as “because fish piss in it.” As I’ve tried to look it up just now, I find it more plausible that he would have phrased it as “because of the disgusting things that fish do in it.” None of these seem to be properly sourced.


    • You caught me. I’ve heard it in this form for probably 20 years, but I didn’t properly source it. Let me correct the error:

      The Bloomsbury Biographical Dictionary of Quotations (1997) lists it, but notes that it’s “Attrib.” – attributed to him, but not proven. Not an uncommon notation for non-literary quotes before the age of continuous recording. I’m willing to accept that as authoritative – it’s not 100%, but that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.

      Fields is something of a more bawdy Mark Twain out there in the world of quotations: There’s a lot of stuff he’s supposed to have said, but much of it is unprovable, or also attributed to others…
      “Anybody who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.” “I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.” “I never drink water. That’s the stuff that rusts pipes.” “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” These and many more are credited to him, but except when they were caught on film, who can say for sure?


  2. Pingback: Hopefully, the complaining will stop now. | thebettereditor

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