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The usage of '[sic]' is well defined for quoting a passage that you believe has an error in it: nearest to the mistake you place '[sic]' within the quotes. For example, suppose I write a letter from I to you. This last sentence of mine is counter to most norms of English writing (it's wrong), so in quoting it someone would naturally want to write:

...suppose I write a letter from I [sic] to you.

Suppose though that I do something else, suppose I write a letter from me to you. This follows accepted grammatical practice (it's correct grammar). But then further suppose that someone thinks you should use 'I' instead of 'me'. And they quote it thus:

...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you.

The '[sic]' has been mistakenly used.

But how do you quote the passage I just wrote? Would it be:

"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." [sic]


"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] [sic] to you."


"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic [sic]] to you."

None of these sound right to me: the first because it doesn't point out where the error is, the second because you can't tell (for either '[sic]') if you're using '[sic]' or it is part of the thing quoted, and for the third example...well, that might be a way to mark the error, but surely the mechanics of '[sic]' could have been designed better to begin with.

So which of these three, or something else entirely, should be used for quoting a passage where '[sic]' is used wrongly?

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+1 This is an awesome question. It's so word-nerdy it hurts :) –  e.James May 11 '11 at 3:38
@e.James: the obvious motivation...why can't copy editors be more like engineers, quoting and escaping more logically? Quoting should be assumed verbatim always and therefore '[sic]' unnecessary (but of course there are problems with this...what if there is a transcription error?). For example when quoting, you should include the punctuation of the original -inside- the quote, and additionally punctuate your sentence that is employing the quote, no double usage. –  Mitch May 11 '11 at 14:16

18 Answers 18

up vote 202 down vote accepted

There are three authors involved here:

  1. The author of the original quote
  2. The author who quoted #1 and added the first "[sic]"
  3. The author who is writing the final document (you)

Let's deal with the easy case: If your intent is to quote author #1, simply remove the offending '[sic]'. This omission does not change the meaning of the quoted phrase, and there is absolutely no reason to include it.

It gets more complicated if your intent is to quote author #2. I can think of five main options:

  1. Ignore the offending '[sic]' entirely (this is the most sane option)

    "...suppose I write a letter from me to you."

  2. Replace the offending '[sic]' with an ellipsis

    "...suppose I write a letter from me ... to you."

  3. Add your own '[sic]' after the quoted sentence (as Serodis recommends)

    "...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." [sic]

  4. Add a footnote to clarify the situation. This can be used in several different ways. I prefer the first one, but it really comes down to a matter of style

    "...suppose I write a letter from me 1 to you."
    "...suppose I write a letter from me to you." 1
    "...suppose I write a letter from me ...1 to you."
    "...suppose I write a letter from me [sic]1 to you."
    "...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." [sic]1

    1: [Author #2] chose to add [sic] after the word me when quoting [Author #1]

  5. Describe the offending '[sic]' in words.

    "...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you". [Author #2] thought that me was incorrect here.
    "...suppose I write a letter from me ([sic] in original) to you". (as proposed by Ariel)

The choice between these options depends on the purpose of your document. I feel that option 1 makes the most sense unless you are writing an academic or legal document that will be highly scrutinized. In those cases, I would prefer options 2 or 4, since they present much less of a mental speed-bump for the reader.

Options 3 and 5 really only make sense if you actually want to draw attention to the '[sic]' itself. This would be the case if you were critiquing author #2. Between these two, I prefer option 5 since it is the most explicit.

Note 1: Oswald points out that [sic] does not necessarily indicate an error in the quoted text, but rather that "the text appears in the source exactly as quoted".

Note 2: Both SLaks and chris propose creative solutions that use changes in typeface to differentiate between each author

Note 3: Rex Kerr has some good information regarding nested quotes

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This answer is so word-nerdy it hurts! :) –  John Y May 11 '11 at 5:17
Isn't the assumption that editorial comments [] are from the current editor? Is there a formatting standard for indicating the hierarchy of editors? –  Sam May 11 '11 at 5:19
@Sam: I think most readers will assume that editorial comments are from the most recent editor. All the more reason to avoid nesting them unless you are specifically trying to draw attention to them. –  e.James May 11 '11 at 6:26
@Mr. Dis: I only just learned of the 'recte' option from Wikipedia. That gives more support to my nested (version 3) possibility: '[sic, recte I [sic, recte me]]'. –  Mitch May 11 '11 at 13:27
@Mitch: '[sic, recte I [sic, recte me]]' sounds like a prayer or something :) I'm not sure you could find an audience who would immediately understand what it means –  e.James May 11 '11 at 16:52

The usage of '[sic]' is well defined for quoting a passage that you believe has an error in it

This is not the actual meaning. The actual meaning is, that the text appears in the source exactly as quoted. It is used to draw attention to that fact, for whatever reason. An error on the side of the original author is a very common reason, but not the only one.

If I make the same error in every sentence, then a sentence where I do not make that error might just as well be worth a [sic].

If the author you quote from uses [sic] and you use it on his quote, it is not clear who introduced which [sic] (regardless of where you put yours). You cannot remove the [sic] of the original author, because that would distort the intent of the original author. I would therefore go for a footnote on the quoted [sic], that explains the details.

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I've seen many places where [sic] is used to mean exactly what you say, i.e., that this is exactly as quoted, and not to suggest any error. Unfortunately, because the most common reason for doing that is for a spelling or grammar error, people are under the misapprehension that is what [sic] actually means. –  Ben Hocking May 11 '11 at 11:34
+1 for using a footnote. –  MrHen May 11 '11 at 14:56
That's correct. One could even argue that there is no need to add any notes at all. –  Mims H. Wright May 12 '11 at 17:13
exactly! see the definition of sic –  Olivier Dulac Jan 2 '13 at 18:52
Interesting. I always thought [sic] stood for "spelling incorrect". –  user545424 Jan 30 at 23:05

I don't think you can simultaneously make it clear that the [sic] was used under dubious circumstances and avoid distracting your reader at the same time. It's hard enough to indicate that you're quoting a quote rather than quoting directly--you skipped showing how you accomplished that, actually.

In programming languages, these sorts of nested and interjected formats are common. For example,

"Look at me now!"
"She said \"Look at me [sic] now!\""
"He said \"She said \\\"Look at me \[sic\][sic] now!\\\"\""

is perfectly interpretable to computers, and possibly programmers.

But the logic of what you're trying to convey is so unexpected for English that I don't think there's a compact way to do it that is not confusing.

Thus, I suggest that a footnote is the best way to deal with this situation, along with making it clear that you are quoting someone who is quoting someone else:

According to John, "Jane wrote, 'Look at me [sic]1 now!'"
1 [sic] inserted by John

Anyone skipping footnotes will still possibly be under an mistaken impression, but at least they were warned if it's clear it was a quoted quote.

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+1 for and possibly programmers –  SLaks May 12 '11 at 1:05
I can assure you programmers actually get that. :) –  Berry Langerak May 12 '11 at 14:57
@Berry: Competent programmers do. Most programmers might not. –  SLaks May 13 '11 at 2:24
I was looking for "to humans... and possibly programmers." –  LarsH May 16 '11 at 17:08
It's not hard at all to show that you are quoting a quote: There's a common English convention of alternating single and double quotes. When you are not including any text from the person quoting, it's common to give a citation like, "Washington, George, personal letter to James Madison, as quoted in Stover, Fred, "The Battle of Monmouth, vol 3". –  Jay Dec 5 '11 at 17:29

What about playing with the typeface?

... suppose I write a letter from me [sic] [sic] to you.

In the example above, it's clear that italicised text is the original (2nd author) quote, and the non-italicised text is the 3rd author's addition.

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This is indeed Bringhurst’s suggestion, and the only occasion for italic brackets. –  tchrist Feb 21 '12 at 2:01
I like this idea, but I would question whether or it not "it's clear" –  ngmiceli Jul 20 '12 at 19:07

In court documents it's common to write: (italics in original) So you would write ([sic] in original, but is incorrect).

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I think this is a good answer. Though unless you want to make a point that the [sic] is incorrect, just saying "([sic] in original)" would be sufficient. –  Jay Dec 5 '11 at 17:17
Technically the original [sic] would not be incorrect. Although [sic] is most often used to mark where an error occurred in the original text, it can be used in any context when the person quoting the original text wants to emphasize that a word or phrase appeared a certain way in the original text. –  Nicole Dec 8 at 22:17

I would go with:

"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." [sic]

Normally, '[sic]' would be placed after the word which was incorrectly spelled/used. However, since adding double '[sic]' would cause confusion and you do not really have reason to point directly at the mistake, it would be best-placed following the complete phrase.

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That seems cleanest to me (most easily understandable), but doesn't preserve all the intention of the technique, which is to pinpoint exactly the part of the original that is in question. That is, is it the "[sic]" that is the problem or something else like "from you"? –  Mitch May 11 '11 at 13:37
I think that works quite well - the issue is that they corrected the sentence, and you need to look at the whole phrase to realise that. You'd only put it directly after the original [sic] if they'd spelled 'sic' wrong (e.g. "from me [sick] [sic] to you"). However, in that case I'd definitely try to show the difference in author using the typography (perhaps using italics). –  Mark May 11 '11 at 17:33
This solution leaves the source of the first [sic] unclear. –  H Stephen Straight Jul 4 '12 at 23:39

Remove all [sic]'s

Quote what you need.

Add the [sic]'s you feel are needed. On the entirety of the quote.

Only a smart as# points out mistakes. [sic] is only needed if it's relevant. A good example is when quoting someone speaking and he used some spoken form thats acceptable, but completely wrong in writing.

Lastly, the convention says that [ ] are for writer comments. (or editor, translator when noted). So no point in moving them to your work.

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Thank goodness for some sanity! As you imply, this whole 'problem' only really arises when the chain of 'quoted quotes' involves writers who are preoccupied with flagging up others' mistakes. One is tempted to speculate that such people may be the authors of their own misfortune, in that they quite possibly quote questionable text purely in order to gleefully pick holes in it. –  FumbleFingers May 12 '11 at 0:36
@FumbleFingers: Well, people use [sic] to, (a) call attention to others' errors; but also (b) to absolve themselves from error, i.e. to say that the mistake is the original author's, not mine, so don't blame me; and related to that is (c) to signal to proofreaders and typesetters that they should not fix the error because it is part of the original quote. –  Jay Dec 5 '11 at 17:15
@Jay: But - even though you've listed it last - my point is that I only really endorse [sic] when it means exactly "this transcription is accurate, so read/typeset it accordingly". If I want to pick holes in other people's writing, I prefer to take issue with what they say, not how they say it. Not that I have much to say about this question, which seems somewhat trivial to me. But it's got nearly twice as many votes as the closest rival on ELU (itself another trivial question probably posted as a joke), so I just thought I should have a presence here on our "showcase question". –  FumbleFingers Dec 5 '11 at 17:32
Actually, [sic] can also express agreement with and praise for the quoted phrasing, by highlighting that it was the original author's. In any case, if you are quoting someone else who added [sic] to a quotation, you absolutely have to include it--not delete it (which would make your quotation inaccurate)--and then do something (second [sic] in different font, footnote, or whatever) to clarify that the (first) [sic] is not yours. –  H Stephen Straight Jul 4 '12 at 23:44

My suggestion is [geb] as a nod to Hofstadter's classic Gödel, Escher, Bach

"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." [geb]

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"If preceded by an [sic] quote, sic is by original author, " if preceded by a quote, sic is by original author. –  Pindatjuh Jul 6 '11 at 18:37

For simple cases, I recommend a fourth option:

John wrote, "…suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you.”

However, for more complicated cases, none of these methods are good enough.

If the quote with the incorrectly-inserted [sic] is nested three (or more!) deep, the inserters of the two [sic]s becomes ambiguous (unless all three quoters [including the outer document writer] [sic]'d the phrase)

Inserting [sic]s after the containing quotes becomes ambiguous if there are multiple [sic]s inside the quotes, especially if there are three [sic]s and two of them are incorrect.

When dealing with multiply-nested quotes, I would recommend using your third option, but attributing each [sic]:

In a famous essay on the topic, Edward wrote that

Dianne addressed this very well, writing, “I would like to quote John, who wrote,
“I [sic - Dianne [sic] - SLaks] believe that most people are wrong.” Me [sic - Edward] disagree with John, since…”

I don't believe that it's necessary to add a third [sic] lamenting Edward's failure to add [sic].

However, as others have mentioned, I strongly recommend dropping all incorrect [sic]s unless they're actually relevant to your writing.
(for example, if you use Edward's conspicuously absent [sic] as a reason to doubt his intelligence and disagree with him)

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If the quotes are discussing [sic]s and yet still have [sic]-able mistakes, I recommend finding higher-quality sources. –  SLaks May 12 '11 at 1:35

Based on a parallel with my children's use of "jinx" I would propose:

...suppose I write a letter from me [sic][double sic] to you.

It might not be correct, but it is at least extensible :-)

...suppose I write a letter from I [sic][double sic][triple sic][quadruple sic] to you.

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As far as error correcting codes goes, this appeals to me (the more abbreviated version, using primes or numbers ("[sic][sic'][sic'][sic''']..." is prone to mix up. But as with all these solutions nobody who hasn't gone through this discussion would have a clue. –  Mitch May 11 '11 at 18:13
This leads to the troubling notion that editors could start a war over a disputed error, turning a small paragraph into an entire book filled with page after page of: [sic][sic? oh no you didn't][sic oh yes I did][sic bring it][double sic][triple sic][infinity sic][infinity sic plus one]... –  e.James May 11 '11 at 20:19
+1 for the idea, but you don't get the distinction between who put the sic without explanation. –  Unreason May 12 '11 at 13:56
I sic you, I double sic you! :-) –  einpoklum Dec 1 '13 at 22:47

(NOTE: it has been pointed out below by Jim Balter that the following answer contains a number of incorrect assertions. I thank him for the corrections. I withdraw it as an answer, but for the present I am leaving the text in place, in the hope that the exchange might be useful to someone else.)

[[INCORRECT: This is a great example of what I call "the quoting problem." It seems that any quoting mechanism we can devise will encounter some situations in which it fails. The situations that cause problems always involve directly or indirectly trying to quote the quote-defining characters. The quoting problem is closely related to some famous paradoxes of self-reference which have been intensely studied in mathematical logic, including Godel's famous incompleteness theorem. The bottom line for everyday use of such notation, I think, is that no single uniform quoting scheme can succeed in every possible situation. That's why an individually composed footnote is a more reliable last resort than any fixed scheme, no matter how sophisticated.]]

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The quoting problem is not actually related to any famous paradoxes ... neither to Godel's famous incompleteness theorem, which is neither a paradox nor a matter of self-reference, nor to the Liar's Paradox, which is a paradox involving self-reference, nor to Russell's set of all sets that do not contain themselves, which is a paradox but only indirectly involves self-reference. The quoting problem is simply a notational problem for frail humans; it is a not a problem with logic. –  Jim Balter May 11 '11 at 21:57
Correction: the incompleteness theorem does involve self-reference, since it is based on the statement "this statement cannot be proven (in the formal axiomatic system in which it is expressed)". The self-reference is managed via Godel-numbering, with which there is no "quoting problem" (there are no situations in which it fails). The thesis here, that there's a relationship, is much like people erroneously taking Murray Gell-Mann's "Eightfold Way" terminology for types of particles as actually relating physics to Eastern mysticism, rather than being an instance of Gell-Mann's whimsy. –  Jim Balter May 11 '11 at 22:12
Can you back up your assertion (or provide a reference) that there is no relationship between the quoting problem and Godel's incompleteness theorem? I would have thought that they were indeed related. Also, can you back up your assertion that Godel numbering can never fail? –  Ralph Dratman May 31 '12 at 20:47
You're seriously asking me to prove a universal negative? You claimed that there is a relationship ... it's up to you to demonstrate one. What you "would have thought" is irrelevant ... it is, again, like those who "would have thought" Murray Gell-Mann's terminology relates physics to Eastern mysticism, because they aren't well versed in physics. As for Godel-numbering, every countable set can be numbered; that's basic. If you want a reference: try google, or a good technical library or bookstore. –  Jim Balter Jun 2 '12 at 2:15
P.S. I did back it up, with explanation: the quoting problem as described here is simply a notional problem for humans, who have trouble reading complex notations. It's ridiculous and ignorant to say that "any quoting mechanism we can devise will encounter some situations in which it fails" ... various programming languages have escape mechanisms which allow every possible string to be expressed, and more generally recursive data structures with references allow arbitrary self-referential systems to be represented. –  Jim Balter Jun 2 '12 at 2:21

This is called a siccup. If you care only about the quote, you just fix it. [sic] is never part of the quote. If you are writing a book for editors just explain that the example is in error.

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"[sic] is never part of the quote" - ITYM "'[sic]' is never part of the quote"... or maybe not. Anyway, that's one of the problems with quoting in printing (as opposed to engineering, where it is handled -just fine-: for meta characters, use an escape character which must be escaped itself to be used literally. Done. –  Mitch May 11 '11 at 21:29

You might, also, try something like:

"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." (sic!?)

Depending on the intention this might be overemphasized. Using round brackets is less frequent, but allowed and here it denotes that the author of [sic] and (sic) is not the same in case you find the double square brackets problematic.

Less emphasized variant might be

"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you." [sic?]

Both of these suffer from the fact that the location is after the quote, but I would say that reader can establish the connection back to the original '[sic]'.

Also, since all suggested answers are not standard nor obvious allow me to elaborate a bit on complexity. For example, you say:

The usage of '[sic]' is well defined for quoting a passage that you believe has an error in it: nearest to the mistake you place '[sic]' within the quotes.

Here I could put a '[sic]' after word error, since your definition is not completely correct ('[sic]' is used to emphasize and affirm that there is no error in transcription, which is either due to an error made by original author or that there is no error at all and the text is as intended).

Then if you would not agree you could put a '[sic]' on my '[sic]' and end up with something like:

"The usage of '[sic]' is well defined for quoting a passage that you believe has an error [sic] in it: nearest to the mistake you place '[sic]' within the quotes." (sic?)

Using any of the other solutions looks similar - our brain's lexical parser needs time to work it out, even if you completely know and understand the way punctuation is intended to work.

So, even though the original question is about the punctuation in a well defined case, the construct so quickly becomes so complicated that maybe using only punctuation is not the right approach. Maybe in this case it is better not to code the meaning in punctuation, but to state verbosely:

"The usage of '[sic]' is well defined for quoting a passage that you believe has an error [sic] in it: nearest to the mistake you place '[sic]' within the quotes." - Unreason is using [sic] mistakenly here.

This seems much more clear and in case you don't need to do it more than once should suffice. In case you will use it often you could adopt any of your ideas and on first usage explain it in footnotes.

My apologies if I am stating the obvious.

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You could add your own correction of the sic by using the word recte, which is used to show a correction. So:

"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic][recte] to you."


"...suppose I write a letter from me [sic][sic recte me] to you."

This is not the most common usage for recte, but I think it would convey the message. The conventional way is the following:

"...suppose I write a letter from I [sic recte me] to you."

It is used to not only point out the mistake, but also provide the correction.

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How has every answer so far missed the fact that [sic][sic] is totally unambiguous anyway? There is absolutely no confusion in the meaning of "a letter from me[sic][sic] to you".

The only way to interpret that is:

  1. A quoter disagreed with the usage of 'me' and added '[sic]' to call attention to it.
  2. A quoter of the original quoter disagreed with the original quoter's use of '[sic]' and added '[sic]' (again) to draw attention to it.

Note that the alternative interpretation (a later editor added '[sic]' between 'me' and '[sic]') doesn't make any sense. Why try and contrive something more complicated when it is unnecessary!

This question misses the real issue entirely, namely that when you are requoting a quote, it is impossible for a reader to determine which editorial interjections were inserted by which quoter, and more broadly, it is difficult to indicate that you are quoting a quote in the first place.

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simplicity at it's rheotoric best.. –  adityasrivastav Nov 20 at 17:16

Congratulations, you are now ready to leave linguistics and become a computer programmer.

My thoughts:

If you fix the error in the quote of the quote, you put [unsic]

Or. if you don't fix the error in the quote of the quote, nest the [sic] like this [[sic]]. That way if someone quotes you, you can tell the distance from the original quote.

Or. add a new symbol and switch to braces which could mark a quoted [sic], {sic}.

Bravo on a great question.

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If I had the power to create new conventions, I'd certainly vote for "[[sic]]" to indicate an editorial notation added by the second editor. It's clear, compact, and unambiguous. Unfortunately, I think you just invented this, so no one would know what it meant except the people reading this thread. –  Jay Dec 5 '11 at 17:20

I'd leave the "[sic]"s out entirely. There's no need to include them (unless you really want to), as they are not part of the quote. The square bracket is used for marking text in a quote not written by the original author, hence it's not a part of the actual quote. If author #3 quotes author #2 and there's a square bracket in the quote, the square bracket should be attributed author #3. Of course, if the author includes a double "[sic]" in the quote, it would be a fair assumption that the reader understand that the author did not sic his own "[sic]", 'cause that would be sick.

Suppose Carl writes a text: "Horses are good. I like them". That text is quoted by Tina, but she adds a note to clarify the text. This is what Tina writes: "Horses are good. I like them [the rats]". Now, if I were to quote Tina, who clearly misinterpreted the second sentence in Carl's original text, I'd just leave that out, since it's not a part of the actual quote. I'd write: "Horses are good. I like them". But, if I'd really want to include Tina's note, I guess I could include the square bracket and then add a note afterwards that the square bracket was not mine, but Tina's.

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First author says: "..suppose I write a letter from me to you..." The second inserts a sic where he erroneously thought was an error: "...suppose I write a letter from me [sic] to you...".

So basically, the second author is not changing the first author's quote in any way other than inserting a [sic].

If the insertion of [sic] does not imply changing of quote, deletion of one should not either. The idea of having a double [sic] would be to point out that the second author (obviously) an intermediate one and not that important, or at least less important than the first one, committed an error in quoting the original one. Also, this adds unwarranted confusion.

Hence I would remove both the [sic]'s. One could say it as two negatives becoming positive.

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