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.