Writers sometimes use bracketed changes to alter quotations. But these changes are often distracting and unnecessary. This post explains when bracketed changes can be avoided and when they are necessary.1

When Brackets Are Unnecessary

Let’s say you’re quoting the famous first line of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. You might write something like the following:

At the beginning of the novel, David Copperfield poses a question: “Whether [he] shall turn out to be the hero of [his] own life” (Dickens). This opening line might be considered an ironic reversal of the opening lines of epic poems, which introduce well-known heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas.

The bracketed changes in that quotation are unnecessary. For instance, if you simply quote the original, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,” it will be clear that David Copperfield is speaking the line.

Sometimes writers use brackets to adjust the syntax of a quotation to fit their prose. This too is usually unnecessary, and it’s often best to revise such a construction. The following shows one sentence with a bracketed change and one without:

Original:

The uncertainty in the novel’s opening line anticipates the rocky path of David Copperfield’s development. For Copperfield, “turn[ing] out to be the hero of my own life” becomes more difficult than might be imagined (Dickens).

Revision:

The uncertainty in the novel’s opening line anticipates the rocky path of David Copperfield’s development. For Copperfield, becoming “the hero of my own life” is ultimately more difficult than might be imagined (Dickens).

In the revision, I began the quotation at a later point and rephrased the first part of the quotation, avoiding the need for a bracketed change.

When Brackets Are Necessary or Acceptable

In MLA style, if you change the case of a letter in a quotation, you should indicate that change with brackets. The following provides an example:

At the beginning of the novel, David Copperfield wonders “[w]hether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life” (Dickens).

In rare cases, you might need to supply information in a quotation. This is done with brackets, as the following example shows:

“My father had often hinted that she [Miss Betsey] seldom conducted herself like an ordinary Christian” (Dickens).

While the bracketed portion in this example is acceptable, it’s also a bit awkward. It’s generally best to supply this kind of information in your own prose. You might revise as follows:

David Copperfield introduces Miss Betsey with his father’s description of her: “My father had often hinted that she seldom conducted herself like an ordinary Christian” (Dickens).

See our related post on using brackets to change verb tense.

Note

  1. See Scocca’s essay for more examples.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. David CopperfieldProject Gutenberg, 2009, www.gutenberg.org/files/766/766-h/766-h.htm.

Scocca, Tom. “Stop Defacing Quotes with Brackets!” Slate, 3 Feb. 2021, slate.com/human-interest/2021/02/stop-defacing-quotes-with-brackets.html.

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Joseph Wallace

Joseph Wallace copyedits articles for PMLA and writes posts for the Style Center. He received a PhD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before coming to the Modern Language Association, he edited articles for Studies in Philology and taught courses on writing and early modern literature.