How do you add text which provides context to a quote?

For example, consider if I were to quote someone as having said:

This is unacceptable!

Were that the whole quote, can I add any text to the quote to indicate what "This" refers to? I think I've seen it done with square brackets...

This [the death threats directed towards bloggers] is unacceptable!

Is this correct? If no, how can it be done?

Note my citation is simply from the top search result for the term "This is unacceptable"


5 Answers 5


The following comes from the Purdue Online Writing Lab's MLA Formatting and Style Guide. Go here to check it out for their citation of the original MLA handbook.

If you add a word or words in a quotation, you should put brackets around the words to indicate that they are not part of the original text.

Jan Harold Brunvand, in an essay on urban legends, states: "some individuals [who retell urban legends] make a point of learning every rumor or tale" (78).

And here is corroboration from Doing Honest Work in College: How to prepare citations, avoid plagiarism, and achieve real academic success, by Charles Lipson:


Occasionally, you need to add a word or two to clarify a quote. Perhaps the original sentence uses a pronoun instead of a person's name. For clarity, you might wish to include the name. Again, you cannot change the quote's meaning, and you need to signal the reader that you are modifying it slightly. You do that by using [brackets] to show exactly what you have inserted. Consider this original text:

Original Text

Q237 Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's closest advisor, was speaking in New York that day. The President called and asked her to return to Washington immediately.Q

Now, let's say you want to quote only the second sentence. An exact quote wouldn't make much sense since the reader won't know whom the president was summoning. To correct that, you need to add a few words and bracket them to make it clear that you've added them to the original:

Your quote with brackets

"The President called and asked [his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice] to return to Washington immediately."

That's an accurate quote even though you added several bracketed words. If you added the same words without brackets, however, it would be a misquotation.

One important rule: These additions [with brackets] . . . should not change quote's meaning in any way. The statement belongs to another writer, not to you. You're welcome to praise it or to damn it, but not to twist it.

Lipson (40-41)

Note: The brackets used within the above quotation are Lipson's own. I think they are meant to be illustrative, though in this context they become a bit confusing. Just to clarify, I didn't put them in. My only change was to omit a reference to an unrelated section of Lipson's book in the "One important rule section."

Hope that helps!


Well, I hate to disagree with everyone here, but the way you have used it is not quite right. When inserting or altering words in quoted text, the insertion or alteration should replace the quoted word like a seamless patch in the sentence.

This [the death threats directed towards bloggers] is unacceptable!

should first be changed to

[The death threats directed towards bloggers] is unacceptable!

and then because the number of the subject fails to agree with the singular copula, one of those needs to be changed, either to

[The death threats directed towards bloggers are] unacceptable!

or, since that rather ludicrously leaves only a single word from the original quote, to something like

[A threat of death directed towards a blogger] is unacceptable!

That said, you are still free to make an editorial comments in square brackets, but they should still flow with the sentence, either the way the sentences above are patched but still smooth or else as obviously parenthetical expressions:

This [i.e. death threats against bloggers] is unacceptable!

  • That makes a lot of sense! Feb 27, 2011 at 2:54
  • @LeguRi -- it makes a lot of sense, but I just don't think it's right. Certainly, I have often seen square brackets used to insert parenthetical or appositive material (without "i.e."). In the case shown, where the inserted material outweighs the original text, I'd re-structure the whole thing: Bob called the death threats directed towards bloggers "unacceptable". Feb 27, 2011 at 9:22
  • @Malvolio - Hence, why I'm holding out on the green tick. If @Robusto can cite some sources, it's his, otherwise I'll probably accept one of the answers below which link to a creditable-ish source for the information. Feb 27, 2011 at 13:13
  • I have actually seen something like "This [the death threats] is unacceptable" in professional writing. Of course, that doesn't meant that stylistically, it wouldn't work better as "This [making of death threats] is unacceptable".
    – Marthaª
    Feb 28, 2011 at 1:00

Square brackets are correct, but sometimes, stylistically, they're inadvisable. They can break up the flow of an important sentence in an essay, for example. In a case like that, I would add any context outside of the quote itself.

So, for your example in the question, I might write: "These death threats against bloggers raised a forceful response from Mike, simply that "This is unacceptable!"

As I said, square brackets are correct, but not always necessary, and sometimes even inadvisable. It's a question of stylistic intent.

I only wanted to point out an alternative to shoving bulky square brackets into a particularly eloquent/forceful/whatever quote if doing so seems odious for whatever reason. :)


Yes, that's perfectly correct, that's perhaps the most frequent use of square brackets.

Quoth Wikipedia:

Square brackets – also called simply brackets (US) – are mainly used to enclose explanatory or missing material usually added by someone other than the original author, especially in quoted text...bracketed comments [can be used to] indicate when original text has been modified for clarity.

with a demonstration for good measure.


Yup, that's the whole point of square brackets.

  • +1 but for the green tick I'm also hoping to get a credible source - MLA or something of the like. Feb 27, 2011 at 1:38
  • @LeguRi -- looks like leetishmel beat me to it. Feb 27, 2011 at 9:17

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