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Bracket creep

Bill Cloud, professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has embarked on a campaign to stamp out brackets in journalistic writing, and You Don’t Say wishes him all success in this worthy endeavor.

First off, though, we have to be clear about terms. Brackets, or square brackets, are used to indicate interpolations in text: words or phrases substituted for words actually used, words added to clarify a context or identify a person more fully. These are brackets: [ ]. Many journalists use parentheses — ( ) — when brackets should be used. (Journalists use dashes where parentheses would be appropriate, but dash-happiness is a subject for another post.)

Professor Cloud objects to brackets for two principal reasons: (1) They are visually distracting in text, and particularly irritating in large-type display quotes. (2) They tend to suggest that the publication thinks that the reader is stupid. An example: I saw somewhere recently, perhaps in my own paper, a reference to “[former President Bill] Clinton.” Here’s a link to a PDF with Professor Cloud’s presentation at the recent national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

Brackets do serve a useful purpose in academic writing, particularly in textual editing. The later journals of [Samuel Johnson biographer James] Boswell,* written when he was ill or distracted or drunk, would be almost impossible to decipher without a battery of typographical marks to indicate a range of editorial interpolations. Not that they are much easier to read with the apparatus.

It is usually easier for the reader, and little trouble for the writer or editor, Professor Cloud rightly says, to establish a context before the quoted matter is introduced and thereby eliminate the need for bracketed matter. There will be cases, particularly when the quotation contains something that is profane, obscene or otherwise offensive, that brackets may be unavoidable, but an editor can surely reduce those instances to the bare minimum.

The bandwagon is rolling, and you are welcome to jump on. Here’s Professor Cloud’s slogan: Whip [brackets] now.


* See?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 AM | | Comments (5)


I might be just a little slow in absorbing the advice here -- that's ok, I'm a little slow generally -- but it sounds like the professor's proscription is only on interpolations, not on other bracket-y uses, such as citational ellipsis -- ? For example:

"To be or not to be [...] ay, there's the rub."

Our executive editor has banned brackets or parentheses in all quoted material because of the distraction and confusion they cause.

So on the desk we're always turning quotes with parentheses into paraphrases or quote fragments.

I think it has made our copy more clear.

I understand how parentheses in quoted material might be confusing if there is a ban on square brackets, but the proper, consistent, and moderate use of square brackets should alleviate confusion, not cause it. I wonder if the fear of bracketry in any form is a case of underestimating the intelligence of readers. After all, most of us tend to use lots of parenthetical observations and other digressions when we speak naturally, and parentheses, along with commas and dashes, help to steer the reader through the meaning of sentences, especially quoted speech.

What about [sic]?

I'm on.
I see a lot of brackets from the young journalists I work with. Brackets really weaken quotes.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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