Inpression_Square Brackets 2

In last week’s post, we explained one way of using square brackets: placing them around the abbreviation “sic” to indicate an error in a quote. Today we’re going to talk about another way of using square brackets, which also happens to involve quotes. Specifically, we’re going to show you how you can use square brackets to clarify ambiguous words in quotes.

Just like we asked you to do last week, imagine that you’re writing a report to summarize the results of a survey and you want to include the following participant response as an example:

  • “They support the program on paper but don’t actively promote it.”

Some of you may recognize this quote from last week’s post. In this case, though, we’ve corrected the typo so that we can focus on a different issue. Can you tell what’s wrong with this sentence? Is there anything about it that would make it difficult for someone to understand?

The answer lies in the first word of the sentence. Who does “they” refer to? If you’re the writer and you’ve taken this quote from a larger survey response provided by a participant, you may know who “they” is. However, your reader may not, especially if you don’t include any contextual information in the report to clarify this. For this reason, the “they” in this sentence is an ambiguous word (and more specifically, an ambiguous pronoun). Note that in the original survey response, it may have been crystal clear who “they” is. Now that the quote has been removed from its context though, the reader doesn’t have the same contextual information to rely on to figure out who “they” refers to.

So how do you fix ambiguous words in quotes? You can use square brackets. The example below shows you how this would work for the example sentence that we showed you above:

  • “They [the senior managers] support the program on paper but don’t actively promote it.”

By placing “the senior managers” right after “they,” we make it clear who “they” refers to so that the reader isn’t left guessing. The clarifying words that we’ve added go inside square brackets so that there isn’t any confusion about which words were part of the original quote and which ones we’ve added for the sake of clarity. The great thing about using square brackets like this is that you don’t have to pass up using an otherwise powerful quote just because it contains words that would be ambiguous if you remove the quote from its original context.

The next time that you’re incorporating quotes into your writing, check to see if any of the words in your quotes are ambiguous now that they’ve been removed from their original context. If you do find an ambiguous word, place clarifying words in square brackets right after it.

Have other questions about how to use square brackets? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.

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How to use square brackets: Part 2
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