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When to Use Brackets

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Some people consider brackets to be the younger and weaker sibling of parentheses. Parentheses are used to clarify meaning or to insert supplemental information in all types of writing. Brackets are used mainly for clarification within quoted material.

Using Brackets in Quotes
 

You may have seen the expression [sic] used in a quote and wondered what it was all about. You can use this expression if you are quoting a piece of text that contains a typo, simply to make it clear that the typo was in the original and not your own mistake. For instance:

  • I agree with her assertion that "kids should read a book a weak [sic]," but I think play time is important, too.

You may also use brackets to make an editorial statement or clarification within a quote. As in:

  • My grandmother always said "dream about a [friendly] dog and you'll see an old friend soon."
  • "The reporter was unsuccessful in his attempt to get a statement from [former] Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld."

Another reason to use brackets in quotes is to add a word, prefix, or suffix in order to fit the quote into your sentence. In the statement below, the ing is added so the sentence will flow.

  • I tried to make dish mild enough for everyone, but my idea of "add[ing] Cayenne pepper to taste" was not the same as my friend's idea.

You can also use brackets to change the tense of a phrase in a quote so it will fit into your sentence:

  • In Thomas Jefferson's time there was definitely a notion that "A little rebellion now and then [was] a good thing."

Using Brackets Within Parentheses
 

It is proper to use brackets to clarify or add to something that is already stated within parentheses. However, it's probably a good idea to avoid this. Some very talented writers can get away with it, but teachers will consider this cumbersome and awkward for the most part. See for yourself:

  • Sally was a rambunctious child, and the family was extremely worried that she would wreak havoc during the festive day (Sally kept quiet during the wedding ceremony [only because she was sleeping], much to her sister's relief). But in the end, the day was a success and a joy to remember.
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