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

This question is born of practical necessity - one that I encountered while quoting a reference in "another" Stack Exchange property's "comment field". Due to space limitations, I had wanted to "paraphrase" the following line..

This is why Git will only let you checkout another branch if everything is checked in – there are no uncommitted modified files.


This is why all changes must be committed before switching branches.

This did allow my post fit nicely - into the properly dignified amount of allowed characters - but left me with only two spaces to spare. With those two, I reluctantly surrounded my mini-edit in ( ) (parenthesis). This is fine, and all... but as the change was mid-quote, and mid-paragraph, there was no obvious way to clarify that this parenthetical portion was NOT as the credited author had intended - but was instead MY little handiwork.

A quick glance about found a dearth of good suggestions on how best to propery attribute - or even indicate - occurances of such paraphrasing, short of some kind of annotated bibliography, etc. What is the correct way to do this (syntactically, via a symbol, or with punctuation, etc.), especially in the context of modern / informal / electronic communications?

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    Square brackets: [ ], if the paraphrase occurs within a passage identified as a quotation. You may make assurance doubly sure with your initials, thus: "To be, or [an alternative - ag], that is the question." Oct 24, 2012 at 21:23
  • I like it! Post as an answer, cause it sure smells right to me - lest some fancy-pants comes along and schools us both...
    – alex gray
    Oct 24, 2012 at 21:28
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    @Kris a: why does posting to english.SE always have to be so unfun, lol? b: "Squarely" seems a tad dramatic / subjective / pedantic, don't ya think? and c: wow, who knew there WAS such a site (writers.SE)...
    – alex gray
    Oct 25, 2012 at 5:16
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    @alexgray a. ELU only if it is not off-topic b. Yes, it's meant to be dramatic, subjective, and pedantic. So it makes you discover writersSE. c. There you are! Explore.
    – Kris
    Oct 25, 2012 at 5:19
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    Add another comment. Oct 25, 2012 at 11:59

1 Answer 1


Standard scholarly usage is to enclose a paraphrase or addition occurring inside a passage identified as a quotation within square brackets: [ ]

You may make assurance doubly sure with your initials (or –ed. or –edd. to identify the interpolation as that of the editor or editors), thus:

"To be, or [an alternative –ag], that is the question."

By the same token, if you omit matter within a quotation you indicate this with ellipsis points: .... The newest version of the MLA Style Manual also requires you to enclose the ellipsis points within brackets, to distinguish your omission from the author's use of this mark:

"To be [...] is the question."

If youdunnit, bracket it.

  • What'll you give me not to mention the possible use of square brackets in material you're re-quoting? Oct 24, 2012 at 22:37
  • @EdwinAshworth I don't know anything about that, and I'd like to know. Add an answer and I for one will upvote it. Perhaps you could ask OP to fold it into his question, too. Oct 24, 2012 at 22:59
  • Quoting material that itself contains lots of punctuation is probably best fully quoted. Omit paraphrasing and explain additions afterwards. Technical material and legal text come to mind, both make use of square brackets frequently.
    – Chris
    Oct 25, 2012 at 1:20
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    @FumbleFingers As Goneril says: Sic, O sic! That is a question of such transcendentally profound triviality it must herald the imminent (and possibly here-immanent) end of Western Civilization. [sic] transit gloria mundi! Oct 25, 2012 at 3:22
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    I sometimes put quotes in a different colour from that of the main text. It's probably allowed in some style guide or other. Oct 28, 2012 at 20:09

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