How to Use Brackets Correctly in Writing

Portrait of male student wearing glasses sitting at desk in classroom
 Getty Images/Caiaimage/Chris Ryan

Brackets are marks of punctuation[ ]used to interject text within other text. Types of brackets include:

  • brackets (mostly used by Americans): [ ]
  • square brackets (mostly used by the British): [ ]
  • parentheses (mostly used by Americans): ( )
  • round brackets (mostly used by the British): ( )
  • brace or curly brackets: { }
  • angle brackets: < >

You won't need them often, but once in a while, only brackets will do when it comes to quoting material.

Brackets can be thought of as the younger siblings of parentheses. Parentheses are used to clarify meaning or to insert supplemental information in all types of writing, but (especially for students) brackets are used mainly for clarification within quoted material.

Using Brackets in Quotes

You may have seen the expression [sic] used in a quote and wondered what it was all about. You should use this notation if you are quoting a piece of text that contains a typo or grammatical mistake, simply to make it clear that the typo was in the original and it was not your own mistake. For instance:

  • I agree with her assertion that "kids should read a book a weak [sic]," but I think playtime is important, too.

The [sic] indicates that you realize that "weak" is the wrong word use, but the mistake appeared in the other person's writing and was not your own.

You may also use brackets to make an editorial statement or clarification within a quote. As in:

  • My grandmother always said "dream about a [friendly] dog and you'll see an old friend soon."
  • "The reporter was unsuccessful in his attempt to get a statement from [former] Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld."

Another reason to use brackets in quotes is to add a word, prefix, or suffix in order to fit the quote into your sentence. In the statement below, the ing is added so the sentence will flow.

  • I tried to make dish mild enough for everyone, but my idea of "add[ing] Cayenne pepper to taste" was not the same as my friend's idea.

You can also use brackets to change the tense of a phrase in a quote so it will fit into your sentence:

  • In Thomas Jefferson's time, there was definitely a notion that "A little rebellion now and then [was] a good thing."

Using Brackets Within Parentheses

It is proper to use brackets to clarify or add to something that is already stated within parentheses. However, it's probably a good idea to avoid this. Some very talented writers can get away with it, but teachers will consider this cumbersome and awkward for the most part. See for yourself:

  • Sally was a rambunctious child, and the family was extremely worried that she would wreak havoc during the festive day (Sally kept quiet during the wedding ceremony [only because she was sleeping], much to her sister's relief). But in the end, the day was a success and a joy to remember.

Outside the examples above, if you are ever in doubt whether to use brackets or parentheses, you should choose parentheses. 

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "How to Use Brackets Correctly in Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Fleming, Grace. (2020, August 27). How to Use Brackets Correctly in Writing. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "How to Use Brackets Correctly in Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).