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What is the proper use of [square brackets] in quotes?

What do brackets around a word or words in a quote mean? This may seem silly, but I've never figured this out.

Bad fictional examples:

"That's what all this is about it is [terrible]"

It's also used at the beginning of a quote sometimes like:

"[Albert Einstein] was genuinely a genius."

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marked as duplicate by simchona, jwpat7, choster, waiwai933 Jun 16 '12 at 22:00

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3 Answers 3

This probably counts as asking about punctuation [and is therefore within the scope of the FAQ].

Brackets enclose content which is not part of the actual quotation, but is necessary for context. It's important (and assumed) that the import of the quotation is not changed.

For example, your second quotation may be an extract from

Albert Einstein worked out how space and time were related. He was genuinely a genius.

The extract wouldn't mean much if it simply started from "He", so that's replaced with the actual subject of the quote to give context.

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Except that this particular part of "punctuation" has never been addressed in my 17 years of schooling. (Kindergarten through college graduation, in the US) –  Izkata Jun 15 '12 at 18:15
1  
@izkata you learn it in your 18th year of schooling. :P –  Mike Ramirez Jun 15 '12 at 18:42
    
@MikeRamirez ...I am unfortunately uncertain if that's a joke, or a misunderstand of "school years" being up to age 17 and missing the final year of highschool, where I meant ages ~5 through ~22... –  Izkata Jun 15 '12 at 19:44
    
@izkata, joke... context is I couldn't know your personal history/background. It could have been 17 for many reasons any of which doesn't matter, it was 17 years of schooling. I just added one for fun. I would have added +1 for any amount of schooling. –  Mike Ramirez Jun 15 '12 at 22:00
    
I don't agree with that example, unfortunately. I would use ellipsis to make the quote short enough. I would only use brackets where context is important but needs too much of the quote to give the context. –  Schroedingers Cat Jun 16 '12 at 15:56

It means that those words are not in the actual quote, but are a summary, or an implication. So, for your second example it might actually have said:

"He was genuinely a genius"

where the referral of "he" to Albert Einstein is gathered in context. In the quote, it needs to be made explicit.

The first quote is more dubious, because there is certainly more quote that could be used, possible with ellipsis:

"That's what all this is about - it is the most hideously terrible performance I have ever seen"

which should be quoted, if not the whole lot, as

"That's what all this is about - it is ... terrible"

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When the quote is not exact, but substitutes the original preposition with what the author actually meant.

Imagine the original text is:

Albert Einstein discovered Theory of Relativity, lay foundations for research on nuclear power and pushed physics by strides. He was genuinely a genius.

Now you want to quote the last sentence only. If you write:

He was genuinely a genius.

that's useless and meaningless, because you skipped, who was that genius. If you write:

Albert Einstein was genuinely a genius.

that's paraphrasing the quote without indicating the paraphrase, a bad habit - you don't change someone's words at random when quoting!

"[Albert Einstein] was genuinely a genius."

This clearly indicates what the original author meant, but also indicates the original quote has been modified for the sake of clarity.

In case of "horrible" it may also be similar. Say, you wrote a very negative review of a trip, a restaurant you ate at, attractions, and you end with

"So, my day's experiences could be summed up as abysmal. The night at the hotel was essentially the same."

Now if someone wants to copy just your quote on the hotel while skipping the rest of your review, they will have to write:

"The night at the hotel was essentially [abysmal]."

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