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I've noticed that it seems to be common to bracket letters when partially quoting someone in order to make it grammatical. If Bob said "I'll retire when I turn sixty," one might write, "Bob told reporters he would retire upon 'turn[ing] sixty,'" adding the [ing] to make it grammatical. (That's pretty poor phrasing, but you get the idea...)

But what happens when changing the tense would requiring changing several letters? Suppose Frank said:

"I was bullied during my tenure with the company."

Would a newspaper report read:

"Bob accused the company of 'bully[ing].'"

or

"Bob accused the company of "'bull[ying].'"

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    I think it would read "Bob accused the company of bullying". Just drop the quotes. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 1:07
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    Quotes are used when directly quoting someone (not when using he said...) and to emphasize a word 0r words He actually said he was looking for "blindspots in his character"...). They would not be used the way you have in your examples. Also, there is no tense change in your examples. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 3:45
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    I don't see that practice. What I do see is media changing words to clarify the meaning. For example, when someone says "It is the biggest problem we have" during an interview, readers may not be able to discern what "it" means immediately without context, so they replace "it" with something like "[Terrorism]" or "[Morality]" or something in the context.
    – Raestloz
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 9:35
  • If the original statement says "bullied", the media would report that "Bob says he was "bullied"".
    – SrJoven
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 11:50
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    I'd be more worried about how Frank turned into Bob.
    – Mynamite
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 22:27

1 Answer 1

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The simple answer is that the brackets serve to modify the sense of the word, not its spelling. So if bracketing obscures the root word then it should be moved to encompass the entire word. '[Bullying]' rather than 'Bull[ying]'.

This fits in completely with the standard academic and journalistic usage of square brackets to modify tense, replace pronouns, or provide contextual clarifications within a quote.

The more complex answer is the same, it just addresses some examples.

Unfortunately the example sentence in the original question brings in a a bit of unintended semantic/syntactic tension.

So to explain the logic of the bracket usage let's do some disambiguation. In the example given "bullied" is clearly the hot quote in the sentence, so a newspaper would form their sentence around it:

"Bob alleges he 'was bullied' by the company."

The phenomenon that's being asked about actually occurs with a word that plays a supporting role in the quote.

So let's re-imagine the example:

Bob says, "I expect to see the markets rally at exactly 2:03 pm."

Before the stated time, Bob can be referred to in this way:

"Market expert Bob boldly predicts 'rally[ing] at exactly 2:03 pm'."

If however the tense changes so that we now need to say "rallied", you are no longer able to modify just the suffix. To write this as "rall[ied]" obscures the root word and therefore is not an appropriate solution.

At this point the brackets expand to encompass the full word. A historian might write:

"Amazingly Bob was right. On June 1st 1901, 'The markets [rallied] at exactly 2:03 pm'."

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  • Although in your last example of a historical account, I wouldn't use a direct quote at all. It would just be, "Amazingly, Bob was right. On June 1, 1901, the markets rallied at exactly 2:03 PM."
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 17:10
  • @Joe Z. Thanks for the style edits, looks much more "stackexchange" now. I also would probably re-structure that last example if I were writing it in a book. (Perhaps as "Amazingly Bob was right. On June 1st 1901, the markets rallied 'at exactly 2:03 pm'.") Which goes to show that there's always alternative solution for something that feels like cumbersome usage. Most real examples for this would involve multi-line quotes or a distinct narrative 'voice'. So the example is a bit forced, but the line serves to highlight logical usage in a fairly straightforward way. Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 18:09

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