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Brackets are vertical lines with little horizontal bits at each end. They are used a lot when you’re explaining what someone else has said or written. Sometimes a quote won’t make sense unless you include a very brief explanation somewhere within it - that’s where brackets are useful:

The writer paused before accusing the journalists [from The New York Times] of being on a witch hunt.

Notice that this is an indirect quote - we’re telling the reader about what the writer said - so there’s no need for quotation marks. We’re also not necessarily quoting the exact words that the writer said.

Sometimes when you report what someone said, you have to change something slightly to make grammatical sense (since you’re now reporting it rather than the original person saying it. When you have to change something, put square brackets around the word or words that you have modified. Usually this happens when you have to change a pronoun:

Luke Skywalker accused Darth Vader of "[killing his] father."

Notice that the real words out of Luke Skywalker’s mouth were something more like "you killed my father", but it’s a bit hard to write that exactly in this sentence. So we change the pronoun from ‘my’ to ‘his’. Notice there is also a tense change from ‘killed’ to ‘killing’ that I’ve put in the square brackets as well.

Handy Hint - Quoting incorrect grammar - using [sic]

If you’re reporting on what celebrities or famous sportspeople have said, you’re bound to come across some who have shocking grammar or are simply drunk! If you were to write their exact words, your readers would not know whether that was what the person really said, or whether you’re just a lousy writer. This is where the ‘[sic]’ statement comes in useful. It means ‘thus, this way’ and is from Latin. The square brackets tell the reader that this is something that has been intentionally added into the text. The italics are because the word is a foreign word. Because it’s not an abbreviation, it needs no period.

To use it, you need to put it just after the error in the quote.

This football player responded, "I’m not gunna [sic] take that from him!"

Don’t go crazy with this, however. If you’ve got to write a large quote from someone who is obviously not very good with their grammar, only ‘[sic]’ the most obvious errors. Don’t tag every single minor error with a ‘[sic]’ otherwise you’ll really interrupt the flow of the text and create headaches for your reader - who may now think you’re a smart ass.

You also need to use ‘[sic]’ for conceptual errors in a quote - if someone has said something that is obviously wrong:

Upon seeing the killer whale, he exclaimed, "that’s one big shark [sic]."