When To Use Brackets in Quotes: Your Punctuation Guide

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Punctuation can be tough to master. There are 14 commonly used punctuation marks in the English language, so if you haven’t mastered using all of them, we don’t blame you.


When it comes to brackets, a lot of people are confused about how to use them properly. For starters, did you know that there are three different types of brackets? There are [square brackets], {braces}, and (parentheses). The ones we use most commonly are parentheses and square brackets, with braces being mostly used only in mathematical tests.


Here, we’ll take a closer look at how to use brackets, including when to use brackets in quotes. We’ll highlight the differences of using parentheses and square brackets so you’ll know exactly when to use each one.


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What Are Brackets?


When we talk about brackets, we’re talking about the square kind: [ ].


You can call them either brackets or square brackets, both are correct. Brackets are used very often in quotes since they’re meant to show that words have been added into a direct quote.


Here’s an example:


Steph told her mother that “we [Steph and her brother] went to the movies the night before.”


In this situation, the brackets are used to clarify who specifically “we” is referring to, therefore clarifying the quote. You would need the brackets, since without them, it would imply that Steph said the entire phrase when in reality she omitted “Steph and her brother.” Not adding brackets when you alter a quote leads to a misquote, which can often have negative repercussions, especially if you’re writing formally such as in an academic essay, a report, or investigative article.


Similarly to the previous example, bracket quotes can also be used in sentences that don’t contain quotes to provide extra information or clarification.


For example:


He [Mr. Jones] didn’t sleep well last night.


In this case, perhaps the subject wasn’t well established in previous sentences for a reader to understand who “he” was referring to, so clarification was added in brackets.


What are Parentheses?


Parentheses are the rounded brackets that look like this: ( ).


They’re used to add more information to a text or sentence. Parenthese can contain a word, a sentence, or sometimes an even longer portion of text.


Generally, the text within parentheses can be omitted entirely and the sentence would still make sense. In many cases, parentheses can also be replaced by commas and the sentence would retain the same meaning.


Here’s an example of how to use a parentheses in a sentence:


Mark was nervous about driving (even though he had his driver’s license for ten years) because of the snow.


The portion in the parentheses could be removed and the sentence would still have the same meaning, but it adds a little bit of extra information that acts as an enrichment for the reader.


How Are Square Brackets Used to Integrate Quotes Properly?


When dealing with quotations, you’re mainly using square brackets, especially if you’re trying to alter the quote in any way. Aside from the example we went over above, there are other ways you can use square brackets in a quote. Let’s have a look at some examples of how to use brackets in quotes.


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If a direct quote includes words or a phrase in another language other than the one in the main text, then you use brackets to provide a translation. However, if the foreign language appears in text that’s not part of a quote, then you should use parentheses.


Let’s have a look at an example:


There’s a new French employee at the office, and she introduced herself by saying “Bonjour, je m’appelle Maude [Hello, my name is Maude].”


Change in Capitalization


Sometimes, when adding a quote to your text, the cases don’t match with the sentences so you need to alter it to lower case or a capital letter. It’s acceptable as long as you signify it with a bracket to show you changed the original text or quote.


For example:


On section 3.1 of his employment contract it said that “[a]ll hours above 40 hours a week are considered overtime.”


Indicate Errors


Nobody’s perfect, even quotes can have mistakes, especially if you’re writing out a quote that was spoken out loud. You might have seen the term [sic] in a quotation before, and this is used to indicate an error. In Latin, sic is a word that means “so” or “thus” and is the abbreviation of sic erat scriptum, meaning “thus it was written.” Therefore, when you use [sic] in a sentence, it shows the reader that the writer isn’t the one making a mistake, but rather that’s how the original quote was written or said.


Here’s an example:


“No matter how they vote, it doesn’t may [sic] any difference.”


Note that the word sic should always be italicized, but the brackets should remain formatted as normal.




If you change the format of a quote to include bolded or italicized text in order to add emphasis, then you would indicate so in square brackets, like this:


Climate scientists agree that “the earth is warming at an alarming rate and we need to act before it’s too late [emphasis added].”




If you need to quote something in formal writing and it would be considered unacceptable to add in foul language, then you can use the quote and insert brackets to omit the censored word.


For example:


She told her husband to “get the [expletive] out of my house.”


Brackets with Brackets


On some rare occasions, you might find that you need to use both parentheses and brackets in a single sentence or a quoted piece of text. There are a few ways you can do this.


If you’re adding brackets to cite a source, it would look something like this:


He wrote about his love for punctuation extensively in his book (Semicolons: A Love Affair [2019]).


You can also have parentheses or brackets that are included in the original source text that you’re quoting and you’ll need to indicate this. In this case, you can format it like this:


The author writes that “the children [Hansel and Gretel] found a house made of candy.” (Brackets in original.)


The Dos and Don’ts of When to Use Brackets in Quotes


If there’s anything you’re still unsure of, this list of Dos and Don’ts when it comes to how to use brackets in quotes should help clear things up:


DO use brackets when altering or inserting words.


DO use brackets when adding an explanation in a quote.


DO put sic in brackets when pointing out an error in a quote.


DO use brackets when changing a letter case or verb tense within a quote.


DON’T use parentheses when altering words in a quote.


DON’T use brackets to alter the original or intended meaning of a quote.


DON’T change the mistake in a quote or omit brackets if they’re originally there.


DON’T use parentheses when changing a letter case or verb in a quote.



To Wrap Up

By now, you should have a better idea of when to use brackets in quotes and in your writing. If you’re a student and you still have questions about grammar, punctuation, or general best writing practices, you can usually find help through student advisors.


At University of the People, we offer writing assistance through our support advisors, so we always recommend taking advantage of this service for help bringing your writing to the next level.