Properly Punctuated: Brackets, [ ]

Posted August 24, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Properly Punctuated, Self-Editing, Writing

Brackets are essentially explanations providing background information. There are a few other tasks they do: computer programming and the hardworking parenthetical.

Punctuation is…

…the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, ahem. As Properly Punctuated is in no way complete, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…

If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page — and consider sharing this Properly Punctuated tidbit with friends by tweeting it.

Brackets, [ ]
Credit to: Burckmyer, 144
Punctuation: [ ]
Definition: Each of a pair of marks used to enclose words or figures so as to separate them from the context.

General Rule: Symbol used as a pair. Always.

A.k.a., square bracket


Explain, Clarify Rule: Use to include:

  • Add an explanation for the information in a quote
  • Explain a technical, foreign, or archaic word
  • Add clarification

Return to top

Drew Andrews, the head librarian at We Read Books, said that Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy [the Lord of the Rings] would encourage more people to read the books.

It doesn’t matter what she [Helen of Troy] actually looked like, what matters is that she was an excuse for war.

He was hoist with his own petard [no one to blame but himself].

It doesn’t matter if they’re [the kittens] are weaned.

Parenthetical Rule: Set off:

  • A word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of the sentence
  • Include parenthetical material inside parentheses

Return to top


  1. Green indicates the brackets and bracketed material
  2. Blue indicates the parentheses

“Four score and seven [87] years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is the start of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (one of the world’s most famous speeches [presented on November 19, 1863] with those last five words the most spoken at all levels of society) given at a cemetery dedication in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Phonetic Explanation Rule: Encloses a phonetic transcription.

Return to top

Phonetic [fə’netik] is an adjective relating to speech sounds or the correspondence between symbols and sounds.
Program-ming Rule: Used in computer programming.

Return to top

function total() {
var theform = document.forms[“myform”];
var total = (+theform.elements[“val1”].value) + (+theform.elements[“val2”].value);
Quotation Rule: When leaving out sections of a quote, an ellipsis is used to let the reader know that there is missing text (preferred by APA and Chicago). MLA prefers that you enclose the ellipsis in brackets to indicate that the brackets are not part of the original text. Using brackets is not a commonly used option.

Return to top

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. […]any nation can[…]long endure.
Changing a Quote Rule: If quoting material and you have to make changes, such as the capitalization of a word, change a verb tense, add a name, or change a pronoun to make the material fit into your sentence, enclose that changed letter or word(s) within brackets.

Return to top

“…she’d discovered…[that]…she wasn’t just content, but happy.”

– Nora Roberts, The Perfect Hope

John Quincy Adams once said [i]f your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

Adding Your Own … to a Quote Rule: If you add your own italics or underlining in a quote, you must note the changes in brackets at the end of the sentence or paragraph, using italics mine, italics added, or emphasis added.

Return to top

“‘Why did I marry you again?’

‘To be honest, Fran, I have no idea. But I am thankful every single day that you did [italics mine].'”

– Seanan McGuire’s “Sweet Poison Wine”

sic Rule: Use [sic] to indicate that the mistake isn’t the writer’s doing.

CAUTION: It’s rude to use this to show up another writer, so only do it if it is absolutely essential to leave the error as is.

Return to top

The hunters gave chase to the hair [sic] at last Wednesday’s hunt.
Transcription Rule: When transcribing, use tags to indicate how a speaker meant something, indicate reactions by others, or indicate what noise is being spoken over.

Return to top

[applause][background music] [commercial break][crying] [fire alarm][laughing] +++

Return to top