Working with a reissue of a text originally published in the '50s that must now conform to Chicago in the new edition. The author used many excerpts, unfaithfully copied and inconsistently attributed, from other texts. No portion of the book may be rewritten, but punctuation will be changed and long in-line quotes can be changed to block quotation when over 100 words, as per Chicago's general recommendation, and sometimes less.

In the below, he used an excerpt from another work and made two alterations: insertion of the word, "public" (though without brackets to indicate the change), and made a comment within the excerpt, which he inserts in parentheses, and adds an exclamation outside the parentheses. Here it is in bold for illustration; single quotes were in his original:

To quote Knopf and Marks, in those bygone, ‘preindustrial’ days, 'the public building industry, in fact, stood out from the normal activities of more or less independent craftsmen in their little workrooms, as the towers of a cathedral or the battlements of a castle stand out above the houses huddled about their base ... The castle at one period, admittedly a time of exceptional activity, found employment for 500 masons, 40 smiths and carpenters, 200 unskilled workers, and 300 carters (medieval truck drivers)! The meaning of these figures will be understood if it be remembered that the population of London, in 1477, was probably no more than 30,000.'

All of this now converted to Chicago and in block quotation contains, as I see it, the following changes:

  1. 'preindustrial' to "preindustrial" (then follows the block quotation)
  2. public to [public]
  3. (medieval truck drivers)! to [(medieval truck drivers!)].

Is this correct usage of square brackets in the third point; should his parentheses be included in between the square brackets? (Square brackets alone would suggest paraphrasing, which this is not. It's his comment inserted into the text.) It's crucial to preserve his intertextual comment but not confuse the reader as to whose words these are.

  • Do you have the original text that was quoted by the author? Are you certain that the exclamation point is not part of the original, marking the end of this exciting sentence? ...500 masons, 40 smiths and carpenters, 200 unskilled workers, and 300 carters! I read it like this (author clarifying carters): ...300 carters [medieval truck drivers]! Jan 18 at 0:39
  • You have CMOS right? “brackets enclose editorial interpolations, explanations, translations of terms from other languages, or corrections. Sometimes the bracketed material replaces rather than amplifies the original word or words.” If the author added the definition of carters and then added the exclamation point as commentary on the volume employment, then: ...300 carters [medieval truck drivers][!] But as you mentioned, you can change the punctuation, so just remove the exclamation point and your problems are solved. Jan 18 at 1:00
  • Some verbiage for this post on SE was altered to hedge against search results returning it for readers of the future edition, but I've indeed located the sources for every excerpt and quotation contained in this lengthy work, and provided proper citations wherever they were not given originally. All discrepancies between original sources and author are noted. His interpolations are considered quite important. If he adds a bit of humorous commentary (a definition, energized with an exclamation point), it must be retained. "[medieval truck drivers][!]" – looks odd but may be correct? Jan 18 at 3:56
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    If your author did in fact tickle himself with his definition of carters then maybe: ...carters [medieval truck drivers (!)]. See also: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/(!). But ...carters [medieval truck drivers!]. is probably fine. Jan 18 at 5:02
  • The way to handle is to explain in footnotes or other comments. I'm voting to close because this is a complex issue about presentation of a text and will largely be a matter of opinion, in conjunction with style guides and particular guidance you have received on how to proceed. It might be considered an impossible task and is certainly not one to which there are clear, documented solutions. Writing or Academia SE might be slightly better for general guidance, but still with the same caveats.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 18 at 9:46

1 Answer 1


I would handle situations #1 and #2 just as you suggest. Your proposed treatment of situation #3, however, strikes me as being less felicitous.

The complication that you face is that, on the one hand, the author has added language to a quotation without asserting ownership of it (in adding "public" to the first sentence of the quotation), while on the other hand, the author has attempted to claim responsibility for another embellishment (in adding "medieval truck drivers" to the second sentence of the quotation) by parking that intrusion (aside from the exclamation point) in parentheses. This puts you in the position of relying on square brackets to indicate two kinds of additions: unacknowledged ones like "public," and acknowledged ones like "medieval truck drivers."

I can see how a desire to distinguish punctiliously between these two categories of interpolation might lead you to try to preserve the author's original parentheses within new square brackets. But most readers, I suspect, would have no idea why you were double-punctuating "[(medieval truck drivers!)]." in that way. Moreover, this proposed treatment doesn't exactly reproduce the author's original interpolation because it positions the exclamation point inside the parentheses (where the author should have put it in the first place) instead of outside the parentheses (where the author actually put it).

You might achieve a more consistent and coherent result by using only square brackets and dispensing altogether with the author's occasional and haphazard efforts to signal such intrusions and asides through the use of parentheses. In situation #3, that would mean recasting the author's original wording as "[medieval truck drivers!]."—with the original parentheses deleted in favor of square brackets that enclose the exclamation point as well as the comment.

If this issue comes up repeatedly in the author's quotations, it might make sense to add a sentence to the introduction to the new edition (if there is one) saying something like "Throughout the book, comments that the author inserts within quotations are indicated by square brackets." Of course, you would then have to scrupulously avoid ever using square brackets in quotations to introduce your own substantive alterations or additions to the text. But given that you are already constrained from altering the language in any meaningful way, that limitation shouldn't pose much of a problem.

Good luck with what sounds like a challenging assignment. The care you have shown in checking the cited quotations against the wording that appears in the original source material speaks well of your thoroughness.

  • Thank you for this analysis. In addition to the original sources, I also have access, through the author's archives, to an earlier typed manuscript. Noticing now how he renders it in this MS version as "40 smiths and carpenters, 200 unskilled workers, and 300 carter. (!)" No carters definition as "medieval truck drivers" inserted yet, as it would appear in the OUP publication, but an exclamation in parentheses is used. So this rather indicates the exclamation applies to the whole of the sentence. Jan 18 at 9:58
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    @Typothalamus: Interesting. Since someone (presumably with the author's approval if not at the author's direction) added the "medieval truck driver comment" on top of the earlier exclamation point reaction, it seems plausible that the handling of the two additions ("medieval truck drivers" in parentheses and the exclamation point outside them but supplanting the period in the quoted source) is an effort to preserve both additions as distinct comments/reactions—but I doubt that any reader would read it that way. If you are authorized to change punctuation, I would recommend putting the ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 18 at 20:34
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    ... "medieval truck drivers" comment in brackets and deleting the exclamation point altogether in favor of a period outside the square brackets: "and 300 carters [medieval truck drivers]." I suppose that it might be truest to the author's intent to frame the interpolation(s) as something like this: "and 300 carters [(medieval truck drivers)(!)]."—but that's a little too baroque for my taste, and in any case it still doesn't really clarify that the exclamation point applies to the entire original sentence.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 18 at 20:34
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    Based on the comment: ...300 carters [medieval truck drivers]. [(!)] The meaning of these figures... or, ...300 carters [medieval truck drivers]. [!] The meaning of these figures... Jan 18 at 23:53
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    @Typothalamus: When it first appeared, the exclamation point was essentially a comment rather than end punctuation intended to supplant the period in the quoted text—so I think it was a mistake by the 1950s editor of the book to put it outside the parenthetical wording. Of the two options that Tinfoil Hat recommends, I prefer the second one, although I doubt that many readers will recognize the underlying two-part interpolation that it represents. Using '[medieval truck drivers!]' minimizes the intrusiveness of the author's interruption(s), which to my mind is a significant virtue.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 22 at 18:15

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