Using Brackets In Essays

Use brackets [ [ ] ] in the following situations:

You can use them to include explanatory words or phrases within quoted language:

Lew Perkins, the Director of Athletic Programs, said that Pumita Espinoza, the new soccer coach [at Notre Dame Academy] is going to be a real winner.

If you are quoting material and you've had to change the capitalization of a word or change a pronoun to make the material fit into your sentence, enclose that changed letter or word(s) within brackets:

Espinoza charged her former employer with "falsification of [her] coaching record."

See the description of the ellipsis for information on using brackets to set off an ellipsis that you have used to indicate omitted language in a quotation.

Also within quotations, you could enclose [sic] within brackets (we italicize but never underline the word sic and we do not italicize the brackets themselves) to show that misspelled words or inappropriately used words are not your own typos or blunders but are part of an accurately rendered quotation:

Reporters found three mispelings [sic] in the report.

(It is bad manners, however, to use this device to show that another writer is a lousy speller or otherwise unlettered. Also, use it only when it is important to maintain the original spelling for some reason. If you can edit (remove) the error without violating some scholarly or ethical principle, do so.) Note, also, that the word sic means "thus" or "that's how it was" and is not an abbreviation; thus, no period.

If you have italicized or underlined words within quoted language that was not italicized or underlined in the original, you can note that change in brackets included within the sentence or paragraph:

It was the atmosphere of the gym that thrilled Jacobs, not the eight championship banners hanging from the beams [italics added].

("Italics mine" or "emphasis added" would be other acceptable phrases.)

You can use brackets to include parenthetical material inside parenthetical material:

Chernwell was poet laureate of Bermuda (a largely honorary position [unpaid]) for ten years.

Be kind to your reader, however, and use this device sparingly.

 

Tips for using brackets (parentheses) effectively

Writers, have you ever found yourselves with a great deal of important information that you want to include in a sentence but had difficulty finding a spot for all of it? Fitting everything into a sentence can be tricky, but this is where brackets are useful. Brackets (parentheses) are punctuation marks used within a sentence to include information that is not essential to the main point. Information within parentheses is usually supplementary; were it removed, the meaning of the sentence would remain unchanged. Intrigued? Keep reading!

Help! There are so many kinds of brackets!

There are four main types of parentheses that can be used in writing. However, not all of them are acceptable for use within all fields of writing. The four main types of brackets are:

  1. Curved Brackets or Parentheses (…) are the most commonly used and are the focus of this article.
  2. Square Brackets […] are most often used to include additional information from an outside source (someone other than the original author).
  3. Curly Brackets {…} are often used in prose to designate a list of equal choices.
  4. Angle Brackets <…> are typically used to enclose and illustrate highlighted information.

This article focuses on the use of curved parentheses (as they are the most common type in everyday writing). Curved brackets serve different purposes depending on the style of writing they are used in, e.g., they can be used in formal documents and in informal documents for two completely different purposes.

Formal writing

In formal writing, parentheses are often used to provide supplementary information within a sentence. This information is not essential to the sentence, but the reader will benefit from knowing it.  For example, when referring to a member of a company in a formal document, it is not uncommon to see "Mr. Adam McCabe (CEO, LulzTV.com) expressed profound sadness upon hearing of the bard’s death." Here, had the bracketed information been left out, the meaning of the sentence would not have changed, but the reader benefits from knowing the additional information about Mr. McCabe.

Informal writing

If you've read Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, then you already know about the use of parentheses to represent a character's innermost thoughts. These thoughts are expressed within brackets and are not spoken aloud for other characters to hear. Brackets are used heavily within stream-of-consciousness writing as a way for the author to show the reader what a character is thinking without having to create dialogue. Be careful though, because the overuse of parentheses can lead to a cluttered and confusing text.

Citations

If you have ever written an academic paper, then you have undoubtedly used curved brackets for your in-text citations. These citations usually occur at the end of a sentence and provide the reader with the source of the information that the author used in the sentence. You will often see these in academic journals, for example: "It has been said that the origin of the spoon dates back to the Middle Paleolithic, when man began using the hollowed out shells of small turtles to sip water (Ferreira, 1986)." The information in the parentheses is essential, not to the meaning of the sentence, but to avoid plagiarism.

Punctuation

Our editors often come across common errors involving brackets and punctuation.

Here is an example of punctuating parentheses:

Incorrect: I went to the mall yesterday. (even though I had no money)

Correct: I went to the mall yesterday (even though I had no money).

Since the information in the parentheses is part of the sentence, it must be placed inside the period.

Using brackets—whether in a business plan or a short story—can be an effective way to include extra information in a sentence. Although they can be useful, try not to use brackets excessively or the clarity of your writing will suffer. If you're struggling with the use of brackets, then send your document to our academic editors.


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