When and How to Use Brackets

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Reader John B. Moss asks if there are guidelines for the use of brackets. There are indeed. Academic style guides such as the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers go into such matters at great length.

The most common use of brackets is to enclose explanatory matter that one adds in editing the work of another writer. They indicate that some kind of alteration has been made in the original text.

1. In quoting a passage it is often necessary to insert information that was provided elsewhere in the original text:

I don’t care what he [Poe] meant by it, the line sounds great but makes no sense.

2. Sometimes a word in the quotation is archaic or used in a sense that may not be familiar to the intended reader so the editor may wish to provide an explanation in brackets:

Paul said he was “let [hindered] hitherto.”

In this episode of C.S.I. her character says “Gimme some bling [gaudy jewelery].”

3. Sometimes it’s necessary to change the original capitalization or provide a word in order to make a quotation fit grammatically into the new text:

He was an out-spoken old curmudgeon.

Quoted form:
According to Jones’s biographer, “[h]e was an out-spoken old curmudgeon.”

4. Sometimes brackets are used to enclose the dots that indicate missing words. The usual way to indicate that some words have been left out (an ellipsis) is to mark the spot with three dots (…).

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race

Incorporated quotation:
According to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, “it little profits…an idle king…to…mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race.”

Some (but not all) academic writers would enclose the dots in a quotation in brackets:

According to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, ” it little profits[…]an idle king[…]to[…]mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race.”

Another use of brackets

Brackets can be used in the context of one’s own writing when more than one thing needs to be set apart. For example:

Watching a popular actor who usually plays good characters play a villain (like Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition [2002]) has a negative effect on many movie-goers.

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5 thoughts on “When and How to Use Brackets”

  1. I have a question regarding Rule #4 above. It states, “… the usual way to indicate that some words have been left out (an ellipsis) is to mark the spot with three dots (…).”

    This statement implies to me that the definition of ellipsis is when words have been left out, which I believe is incorrect. Would this have been correct, written this way?:

    “The usual way to indicate that some words have been left out is to mark the spot with three dots (…), known as an ellipsis.”


  2. Sean,
    In linguistics, an ellipsis is the omission of one or more words from a clause. So, no. The author of the article was not wrong in writing this way.

  3. Brackets are always used in nesting parentheses. Why is it that that there was no mention of this?
    I.e. [South Georgia (Island), the one that is in the South Atlantic ocean].
    Many people from the former British Empire do not understand that South Georgia Island is a place of little consequence and no permanent population. On the other hand, the real South Georgia in the United States is a place of millions of people, billions and billions of dollars of economic activity annually, universities and colleges, and Army, Navy, and Air Force Bases.

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