In the small, foreign country where I live, Spring is making a heroic effort to assert itself. It’s going two steps forward and one step back. But today is gorgeous; a perfect day to learn about brackets!
First, I must confess: In my last post, which mentioned author Ken Follett, I spelled his name wrong. I forgot the second t. Many thanks to my lovely brother-in-law, who pointed it out. And sorry, Ken! If you click on my post now, you’ll see that I’ve corrected my mistake.
I love the word bracketology
But unfortunately, it doesn’t mean the study of brackets.
As I said in my previous post, I’m currently working on a project that has many members of the team a bit bracket-challenged. Then I discovered that another book I’m editing is bracket-heavy and needs close bracket supervision. Thus, I thought I’d revisit the bracket issue.
These are the helpful hints I wrote in my 2016 post on parenthetical statements:
Brackets are also called square brackets (as opposed to round brackets, i.e., parentheses). They are used when an omniscient being is interrupting or clarifying the prose. Brackets are the most off-topic, as they are divorced from the subject matter, the point of view, and/or the quotation. They can be used in the following situations:
- When an author is quoting someone but needs to change the quote to make the prose sound better: Johnny said that “[he] always wanted to fly a combat helicopter.” The original quote was “I always wanted to fly a combat helicopter,” but the author was using third person and thus changed the I to he.
- When more explanation is necessary: “All of them joined in the valley of Siddim, which is [now] the Salt Sea” (Genesis 14:3). The word “now” is not in the original Hebrew. It was added because the Salt Sea wasn’t called the Salt Sea at the time of the war being described in this verse; it was called the valley of Siddim at that time. A literal translation might confuse readers, most of whom assume that a valley is not a sea. (Notice that I enclose the source, i.e., Genesis 14:3, in parentheses.)
- When the author is quoting directly from a source but is worried her readers will think she’s an idiot: “Your [sic] a nice person,” she wrote. The author has inserted “sic” here to make sure we all know that she herself would never in a million years write “your” when she means “you’re.”
- When an author is substituting an original phrase for one of his own choosing: The radio show host said the prime minister was the biggest [expletive deleted] in the history of the world.
More complicated bracket issues
What I wrote above is 100 percent correct. However, sometimes other, more complex parenthetical issues come up. There are often punctuation issues as well when brackets are used.
ADDITIONAL BRACKET RULE:
You need to put into brackets everything that would not belong on the page if you didn’t have the brackets in the first place.
Example A: [Upon meeting David,] Russel told Myrna that he wasn’t good enough for her.
NOT: [Upon meeting David], Russel told Myrna that he wasn’t good enough for her.
In this example, the comma goes in the bracketed phrase, because if you didn’t have the bracketed phrase, you’d be left with a sentence that looks like this:
, Russel told Myrna that he wasn’t good enough for her.
Example B: She did not withhold [my salary] from me, [because she knew I’d sue her if she did].
Here, the first bracketed phrase replaces the word “it.”
Let’s look at the second bracketed phrase. If you took it out, you’d be left with a comma and a period together: “She did not withhold [my salary] from me,.” To put the comma within the brackets isn’t nice: [, because she knew I’d sue her if she did]. The only alternative is to make an exception here and retain the comma outside the brackets.
By the way, in academic literature you can sometimes get away with a punctuation mark right inside the open bracket. But I don’t recommend it for any other genre of writing.
Example C: This one [Jack] exited and that one [Jill] entered.
“This one/that one” are integral parts of the original sentence (and they aren’t pronouns, such as “he” or “she”). We are using the bracketed phrase to elaborate, not substitute.
Now, I know there is the appositive thing, i.e., “This one, [Jack,] exited and that one, [Jill,] entered.” That said, please, DON’T use 4 commas instead of zero commas! Remember: You must keep your readers at the forefront of your mind. They need ease of reading and simple, clean punctuation more than they need your appositives.
Example D: We’re sisters, [we both suffer silently,] in our misery.
NOT: We’re sisters, [we both suffer silently], in our misery.
First off, we need to understand that the bracketed phrase is explaining what I mean by being a sister in misery to someone. If I wanted to express that I and another woman suffer silently in our misery, I wouldn’t need brackets at all, as “we both suffer silently” would be an integral part of the sentence.
Back to the original sentence. If you were to take out the bracketed phrase, you wouldn’t need commas at all, i.e., “We’re sisters in our misery.” However, “We’re sisters, we both suffer silently, in our misery” begs 2 commas (which “bracket” the middle clause). It would thus be better to retain both of them in the sentence. Place the second comma within the brackets and keep the first comma where it is.
Another option is to substitute the brackets for the abbreviation i.e.: “We’re sisters, i.e., we both suffer silently, in our misery.”
There is a case for no commas even if you retain the brackets. I don’t recommend this, because it would sound too much like a run-on sentence: “We’re sisters [we both suffer silently] in our misery.”
The reader [almost] always comes first
You have no doubt noticed that I’ve broken some of my own bracket rules. That is because the bottom line is to make it as easy as possible for your reader. Therefore, when confronted with a sticky grammar or punctuation issue, ask yourself what would help your reader better understand the phrase.
You won’t encounter many brackets in fiction. But certainly in nonfiction – especially in excerpts or quotations – you’ll need to know how to use brackets correctly and in a way that your reader will understand what is being substituted, what is being elaborated, or what is being added.
That’s it for today! I hope you’ve learned both about brackets and about putting readers first. In my next post, I will update you on my reading lists and other sundry stuff. I’d also like to take another look at the poorly written and edited garbage I’ve decided to stop reading on Kindle.
For more on brackets, see The Chicago Manual of Style 6.99, 6.103.
And until next time,
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