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I sometimes see square brackets used while quoting. My assumption is that they are replacing a pronoun with what the object of the pronoun, but I never know for sure because I don't usually get to see what the original quote looks like before the modification. What are these called and what are the rules of use?

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

These are used to indicate that a direct quote has been edited — to fit the surrounding information, or to add context that does not show up within the scope of the quote. This page has a more detailed description:

Square brackets are used around words that are added that are not part of the original quote. For instance, you might have a source that says "Brenda and David went to the store," but you only want the quote to refer to David as a pronoun in your quote. So you should change it to "[He] went to the store."

Brackets can also be used with quotes for explanation for how you changed the quote from the original source. For example, you might write "Brenda and David went to the store [emphasis added]."

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Your link doesn't work anymore, I'm afraid. –  snailboat Jul 1 '13 at 12:47
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@snailboat: Updated the link and added some text to help prevent the answer from getting stale. –  Kosmonaut Jul 1 '13 at 14:36
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They are simply used to add contextual clarity where the meaning is unclear. This is not only in quotes, but that's its most common usage:

Original: "I returned there yesterday, 2 hours after it happened"

Quote: The criminal admitted: "I returned [to the crime scene] yesterday, 2 hours after [the murder] happened"

Square brackets are not ONLY used in quotes. They are used often in translation. For example, the bible. Although not all bibles do this, one notable bible that did do this was "The Geneva Bible"

The Geneva Bible translators gave particular attention to retaining the flavor and sense of the original Hebrew. Words that the translators considered to be necessary additions were shown in italics, and text that had been added for grammatical clarity appeared in square brackets.

Example: Daniel 1:7

And to them the principal court official went assigning names. So he assigned to Daniel [the name of] Bel‧te‧shaz′zar; and to Han‧a‧ni′ah, Sha′drach; and to Mish′a‧el, Me′shach; and to Az‧a‧ri′ah, A‧bed′ne‧go.

Square brackets, whether part of a quote or just in text simply mean: "Added for contextual accuracy"

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Not always "added". As Kosmonaut's answer points out, they are often used to indicate that something has been edited: when changing tenses, correcting spellings, etc. In any case, the square brackets just mean "this is not present in the original". –  ShreevatsaR Aug 31 '10 at 20:18
    
Yes. That's why I used "added" insomuch as it adds "clarity". Words may or may not have been added, but contextual clarity has definitely been added. I was simply pointing out that it's not only used in quotations, but also translations. The usage, therefore, is more broad than that of only being used in a quotation. –  Armstrongest Sep 1 '10 at 23:12
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