Square Brackets in Quotations

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The Quick Answer
The main function of square brackets [ ] is to make a quotation more understandable. Square brackets are used for explanations. They show that the explanation is not the work of the original author. For example:
  • She said: "If I can't keep her [her horse], I'll scream the house down!"
  • (Here, the text in square brackets explains "her.")
  • She said: "If I can't keep [my horse], I'll scream the house down!"
  • (Here, the text in square brackets replaces "her.")
Square brackets are also used to make a quotation fit grammatically. For example:
  • She "scream[ed] the house down" when they took her horse.
  • (Here, the text has been modified to fit grammatically into the sentence structure.)
square brackets with quotations

Using Square Brackets in Quotations

Square brackets [ ] are used to make a quotation more understandable.

Square Brackets to Make the Text Clearer

Square brackets are used to add information that explains the text it follows. (The information is added by someone other than the original author.) For example:
  • Hedy Lamarr once said: "Most people save all their lives and leave it [their money] to somebody else."
  • (The text in the square brackets explains what "it" means. Hedy Lamarr used just the word "it.")
  • "It [electricity] is really just organized lightning."
  • (As before, the text in the square brackets explains what "it" means. The original author used just the word "it.")

Square Brackets to Modify the Original Text

Often, square brackets can be used to replace text in a quotation to make the quotation clearer for the reader. For example:
  • Hedy Lamarr once said: "Most people save all their lives and leave [their money] to somebody else."
  • (The text in the square brackets replaces the word "it," which was used by Hedy Lamarr.)
  • Alice Cooper famously said that "from the moment [he] leave[s] [his] house or hotel room, the public owns [him]."
  • (In this example, Alice Cooper's original quotation has been modified to make it fit grammatically within the sentence structure. Originally, Alice Cooper said: "From the moment I leave my house or hotel room, the public owns me.")

Square Brackets: [sic]

The term "[sic]" is used to show that the word it follows featured in the original text. Often, "[sic]" is used to indicate that a grammar error in the text was written by the original author. For example:
  • The minister believed that his statement was "appropriate and did not undermine the moral [sic] of our troops."
  • (The person citing this quotation is making the point that "moral" is wrong. "Morale" would have been correct.)
  • Your demand for a "full compliment [sic] of men" cannot be met at this time.
  • (The person citing this quotation is making the point that "compliment" is wrong. "Complement" would have been correct.)
NB: Sic stands for sic erat scriptum (thus it was written).

Square Brackets: [...]

Ellipsis (three dots) is used to show that text has been omitted from a quotation. Ellipsis is usually written "..." or "[...]". For example:
  • It's no small irony that the government [...] ends up promoting precisely that which they would most like to repress.
  • (The word "inevitably and invariably" have been replaced by the ellipsis.)
  • Andy Warhol is the only genius...with an IQ of 60.
  • (The ellipsis replaces the words "I've ever known" in this Gore Vidal quotation.)

A Video on Using Square Brackets

Here is a video summarizing how to use square brackets:

Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Using round brackets More about brackets, commas, and dashes What is parenthetical punctuation? What is parenthesis?