When & How to Use Brackets in Writing

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

This lesson explains how and when to use brackets in writing. You'll find that brackets are a useful tool when you are using direct quotations in your writing.

Brackets in Grammar

Brackets are a form of punctuation. We don't use them often, but there are rules for when to use them. Brackets are sometimes referred to as square brackets while parentheses are sometimes called a round bracket. Brackets are usually found on the right-hand side of a computer keyboard just above the Enter key. Brackets look like this:

This is what brackets look like
Brackets are used in direct quotations.

Brackets have only one purpose in writing: to add additional information to a direct quotation. When we use other people's words in our own writing, we are using a direct quotation. We use double quotation marks to show that the words are not our own. We also add a speaker tag to show whose words we are using.

Examples of Direct Quotation

In the following example, notice how the quotation marks and the speaker tag, Patrick Henry said, are used to show the source of the quotation.

Patrick Henry said, 'Give me liberty or give me death.'

This direct quotation is a good example of the kinds of statements we would probably want to quote. This is a memorable and well-known quotation, so we would probably choose to use Patrick Henry's exact words.

Examples of Brackets in Direct Quotation

Because we are likely to quote only a couple of sentences from a longer passage of writing, it is sometimes necessary to explain or clarify something in the quotation. In the following quotation, it is not possible to determine who she refers to. We can use brackets to tell our readers who she refers to in the quote.

Original quote

'She is always thought of as a tragic figure,' James Freeman says.

We need to explain to our readers who she is in this quote, and since we do not want to change the original wording of a direct quotation, we need to use brackets to insert additional information.

Quote with brackets

'She [Zelda Fitzgerald] is always thought of as a tragic figure,' James Freeman says.

Here, we have changed none of the original words. We have simply placed some additional information in brackets.

An Error in the Source

Sometimes, we will want to quote from a source only to discover that the source contains an error. The error could be something simple like a spelling error or a typo, or the quotation could contain some bit of erroneous information.

We can still use the direct quotation, even with the error, and we can use brackets to show that the error appeared in the source.

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