square brackets 3

Over the past few weeks, we’ve showed you how you can use square brackets to clarify “errors” or ambiguous words in quotes. However, square brackets can come in handy even if you don’t use quotes in your writing very often. How? You can use them when you want to place words in parentheses inside a part of a sentence that’s already in parentheses. For example, take a look at the following sentence:

  • “Children aren’t permitted to attend the event (unless they’re a first-degree relative [i.e., child or sibling] of a host).”

In this case, the writer wants to provide additional information in the sentence (i.e., “unless they’re a first-degree relative of a host”) to indicate an exception to the information that the main part of the sentence provides (i.e., “Children aren’t permitted to attend the event”). However, the writer also needs to define a term that’s used to describe the exception (i.e., “first-degree relative”). The definition would normally be placed inside parentheses, just like this: “Children can attend if they’re a first-degree relative (i.e., child or sibling) of a host”. But because the definition is embedded in a phrase that’s already in parentheses, the definition needs to be placed in square brackets. Using square brackets for the second set of parenthetical material (i.e., the definition of “first-degree relative”) makes it easier for the reader to figure out where each pair of parentheses or brackets begins and ends:

  • “Children aren’t permitted to attend the event (unless they’re a first-degree relative (i.e., child or sibling) of a host).”
  • “Children aren’t permitted to attend the event (unless they’re a first-degree relative [i.e., child or sibling] of a host).”

As you can see, it’s easier to distinguish the exception phrase (i.e., “unless they’re a first-degree relative of a host”) from the definition of “first-degree relative” when one set of information is placed in parentheses and the other set is placed in square brackets.

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 3
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