Quick Grammar Lesson: Altering Direct Quotations with Brackets and the Ellipsis

Two forms of punctuation that students don’t often use properly are brackets and the ellipsis. Both of these forms of punctuation can be used when directly quoting a source in an essay or research paper, and their usefulness is really underappreciated by many students. Essentially brackets and the ellipsis allow us to alter direct quotations as needed in order to fit the flow of our own essay-writing voice. Below you’ll see how first brackets and then the ellipsis should properly function when used to alter direct quotations. For this article, let’s look at examples taken from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The brackets is a device that essentially allows an author to signal to the reader that he or she has changed a word or phrase in a direct quotation. Most often these changes are done to make the direct quotation grammatically consistent with the rest of the article. For example, you can use brackets to change the tense of a verb to match the tense in which you’ve written your essay.

So why, exactly, was Martin Luther King Jr. in that jail when he could have been a free man had he stayed away from trouble? Well, he “[could] not sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what [happened] in Birmingham.”

Notice how the brackets above change the tense of the verbs to match the flow of the sentence?

Another example of using brackets in a direct quotation is to make a clarification of information. It’s common to replace pronouns with proper nouns if the meaning or information might be unclear to a reader. Additionally, you could even add extra material if you feel that clarification is needed.

Regarding why he did not further delay in resisting the authorities, King writes, “Having aided in this community need [to defeat the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene Connor, in reelection], we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.”

While brackets are useful for exchanging information or adding new information in direct quotations, the ellipsis is useful for omitting unnecessary information. Essentially, you can insert an ellipsis into a quotation to show your reader that you have cut out text from the quote that you thought was unnecessary. That way, you allow a responsible reader the option of seeking out the original quote if he or she wants to.

King writes, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed … to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

In the above, I’ve used the ellipsis to eliminate a lengthy phrase from that quotation to avoid having to set it up as a block quote in the text of the essay, which could have affected the flow of the paper.

If you have any further questions about using brackets or the ellipsis in your essays, be sure to visit your university’s writing center, talk to your professor, or check out grammar guides online.