What are brackets?

Brackets ( [ ] ), sometimes known as square brackets, are similar to parentheses in that they are used to contain information that does not impact the overall grammatical structure of the sentence. However, rather than indicating information that is supplemental or incidental, brackets are usually used within quoted speech to indicate that a writer has added material to the quotation to provide clarifying or explanatory information. There are also a number of more technical uses, which we’ll look at further on.

Using brackets for clarification

The most common use of brackets is to enclose information that clarifies or explains an ambiguous element in a quoted sentence. For example:
  • “She [the governor] insisted that the restructured budget would not result in funding shortfalls for schools.”
We can also use brackets to replace a word so the quotation fits with the natural flow of the sentence, such as by changing a capital letter to a lowercase (or vice versa), using the correct pronoun to fit the sentence’s grammatical person, or creating the correct subject-verb agreement. For instance:
  • Original sentence: “I have always been sure to file my taxes on time.”
  • As a quotation: The senator said he “[has] always been sure to file [his] taxes on time.”
  • Original sentence: “The U.N. will ultimately have oversight over reunification.”
  • As a quotation: The acting president has confirmed that “[t]he U.N. will ultimately have oversight over reunification.”
  • Original sentence: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
  • As a quotation: “[A] date which will live in infamy,” as then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called it, the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, acted as a catalyst that propelled America into the Second Word War.
Remember: Do not use parentheses instead of brackets when making changes to quoted material. Using parentheses implies that the information is an original part of the quotation, rather than a change or addition made by the person using the quote.
Finally, if there are already square brackets in the original quote, we must make a note of it after the quotation so the reader doesn’t think it is an addition by the writer. For instance:
  • According to Dobson: “Caesar’s famous line ‘Et tu, Brute [And you, Brutus]?’ is most likely a product of artistic license rather than historical fact.” (Brackets in original; Dobson 203.)
(We will address how to use brackets to indicate translations within a quotation later in this article.)

Other uses

Indicating added emphasis

When we wish to emphasize a part of a quotation by italicizing (or, less commonly, underlining) it, we must be sure to mark that the emphasis was not included in the original quotation. Most commonly, we add the words “emphasis added,” “emphasis mine,” “italics added,” or “italics mine.”
If we are making note of this change within the quotation itself, we must use brackets around this note so that it remains clear that the change was done by the person using the quotation. For example:
  • In his literary analysis of the play, Thompson claims that “the entire second act serves to underscore the inevitability of mortality that is always present in our subconscious mind [emphasis added].”
We can also use parentheses for this, but the notation must occur outside of the quotation. This is especially useful if we are including page numbers as part of a citation, as in:
  • In his literary analysis of the play, Thompson claims that “the entire second act serves to underscore the inevitability of mortality that is always present in our subconscious mind” (emphasis added; Thompson, 121).
Alternatively, you could make this parenthetical element a separate minor sentence after the quotation; just be sure to put a period at the end of both sentences:
  • In his literary analysis of the play, Thompson claims that “the entire second act serves to underscore the inevitability of mortality that is always present in our subconscious mind.” (Emphasis added; Thompson 121.)


When a quotation contains a mistake, such as a spelling mistake or grammatical error, but we wish to preserve the quotation exactly as it was written, we can mark it with the word sic (Latin for thus or so) in brackets to let the reader know that the error was not our own. Note that sic is usually italicized, but not always (the brackets around it, however, are never italicized).
  • “For the last few weeks, our team has demonstrated a resolutoin [sic] to win that has simply defied the odds.”
  • The protester held up a sign reading, “Its [sic] Time for Literacy!”
  • “Every single member of our union have [sic] voted for a strike,” a spokesman said.
Note that the use of sic to indicate errors can sometimes be seen as a pedantic way of highlighting other writers’ errors. It should generally just be used when preserving the quotation in its original state is specifically important; otherwise, consider rearranging the quotation to omit the error, or else put the correct word in brackets in its place, as in:
  • “Every single member of our union [has] voted for a strike,” a spokesman said.

Translations within quotations

When we use a foreign word or phrase within our own (unquoted) writing, we can put the translation in parentheses beside it. If the foreign word (or words) occurs within a quotation, however, we can provide the translation within brackets to ensure the reader knows that we’ve added it ourselves. For example:
  • The only thing I know how to say in German is danke schön (thank you).
  • The principal said during his speech, “I would like to extend a warm fáilte [welcome] to all of our visiting Irish students.”

Parentheses within parentheses

Occasionally, we might have a larger parenthetical element that contains one or more smaller ones. Conventionally, the smaller parenthetical element will be enclosed within brackets to distinguish it from the parentheses of the larger text. While it is not uncommon to see multiple sets of parentheses used within one another (sometimes known as nested parentheses), this is generally frowned upon, especially in more formal or academic writing. For example:


When using a quotation that contains vulgar, offensive, or objectionable words, we can use brackets around a word like “expletive” or the longer “expletive deleted.” Occasionally these words are put in capital letters, especially in more formal writing such as court transcripts. For example:
  • The defendant told the court that he “knew the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] had been stealing from the company for several years.”
  • “My father was a real [expletive],” Smith told reporters, “but I never stopped loving him.”
We can also use two or three dashes (without brackets) in place of offensive or objectionable language. Informally, many writers also choose to simply substitute the word with other characters, especially asterisks. For example:
  • “My father was a real ——,” Smith told reporters, “but I never stopped loving him.”
  • “My father was a real ****,” Smith told reporters, “but I never stopped loving him.”

With ellipses

One final use of brackets is to enclose an ellipsis (), which is used to indicate that a portion of the quoted text has been omitted, usually because it is not directly important to the writer’s meaning and including it would make the quotation overly verbose. This is especially common in writing that features long excerpts, such as academic papers. For example:
  • “It’s no surprise,” the superintendent told me, “that people have been leaving so quickly. After all […] no one wants to wake up with half their house underwater.”
  • “For on the issue of sovereignty, no one can argue that the country is any less politically sovereign than […] before the crisis. But in handing power from the hands of their electorate to the wealthy elite, the interests of the nation will be […] inevitably left up to the interests of corporations.”
Note that brackets in this case are not mandatory; though some style guides recommend their use, it is very common to see ellipses without brackets as well. Check the preference of your organization’s or school’s style guide, and be sure to be consistent.

Other types of brackets

In addition to parentheses and square brackets, there are two other types of brackets: braces ( { } ) and angle brackets ( < > ).

Braces (Curly Brackets)

Braces (also known as curly brackets) are commonly used in mathematics to express sets of numbers, as well as in computer programming languages.
In non-mathematical and non-programming writing, braces occasionally serve the purpose of linking multiple lines of text to show a shared meaning or connection between them, but this is generally only seen in handwriting (since there is no straightforward way to create multiple-line-spanning braces in modern typesetting).
It’s also possible for them to be used to represent a series of possible choices, as in:
  • You may choose one meat filling {chicken, pork, beef} and one type of cheese {cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack, mozzarella} for your sandwich.
However, they are used very rarely for this purpose.
Note: Braces should never be used in place of parentheses or brackets.

Angle Brackets

Angle brackets (sometimes known as chevrons) are also used primarily in mathematics. In writing, we also can use angle brackets to indicate Internet URLs or email addresses, as in:
  • “Further information is available at <>.”
However, this tendency fell out of common use as URLs and email addresses became more commonplace. However, you may still encounter angle brackets used in this way to indicate URLs in the Works Cited pages of research papers, or to separate a person’s name from their email address in the recipient line when composing an email.

1. Which of the following is the primary function of brackets?

2. Which of the following would we enclose in brackets to indicate a spelling or grammatical mistake?

3. When can brackets be used to indicate parenthetical information?

4. Which of the following is not a technical use for brackets?

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