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Inserting or Altering Words in a Direct Quotation

"Inserting or Altering Words into a Direct Quotation (MLA)" was written by Nancy E. Lewis.

What punctuation should be used when words are inserted or altered in a direct quotation?

When writers insert or alter words in a direct quotation, square brackets—[ ]—are placed around the change. The brackets, always used in pairs, enclose words intended to clarify meaning, provide a brief explanation, or to help integrate the quote into the writer’s sentence.  A common error writers make is to use parentheses in place of brackets.

How are square brackets used around clarifying or explanatory words?

Let’s look at an example:

Quotation with brackets used correctly around a clarifying word:

“It [driving] imposes a heavy procedural workload on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107). [1]

Note: Brackets are placed around the inserted word in this example to let the reader know that ‘driving’ clarifies the meaning of the pronoun ‘it.’

Quotation with parentheses incorrectly used in place of brackets:

“It (driving) imposes a heavy procedural workload on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107).

Note: Parentheses are used incorrectly in place of brackets in this example, making the inserted word look like it could be part of the original text.

Let’s look at another example:

Quotation with brackets used correctly around an explanatory insert:

“[D]riving is not as automatic as one might think; in fact, it imposes a heavy procedural workload [visual and motor demands] on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107).

Note: Brackets are placed around the inserted words in this example to provide further explanation of the “procedural workload” discussed in the original text.

Quotation with parentheses incorrectly used in place of brackets:

“[D]riving is not as automatic as one might think; in fact, it imposes a heavy procedural workload (visual and motor demands) on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107).

Note: Parentheses are used incorrectly in place of brackets in this example, making the inserted words look like they are part of the original text.

How are square brackets used to help integrate a quote properly?

Let’s look at an example:

Original direct quotation beginning with an upper case letter:

“The heavy cognitive workload of driving suggests that any secondary task has the potential to affect driver behavior” (Salvucci and Taatgen 108).

Integrated quotation with brackets used correctly to indicate a change in letter case:

Salvucci and Taatgen propose that “[t]he heavy cognitive workload of driving suggests that any secondary task has the potential to affect driver behavior” (108).

Note: Brackets are placed around the lower-case letter‘t’ to indicate that the letter case has been changed. The quotation is introduced by a signal phrase, which makes the quote an integral part of the writer’s sentence; as a result of this syntactical change, the upper case ‘T’ in the original is changed to a lower case letter.

Let’s look at another example:

Original direct quotation written in the past tense:    

“Not coincidentally, drivers have been increasingly engaging in secondary tasks while driving” (Salvucci and Taatgen 68).

Note: The authors’ words appear in the past tense in the original text.

Quotation with brackets used correctly to indicate a change in verb tense:

“Not coincidentally, drivers [are] increasingly engaging in secondary tasks while driving” (Salvucci and Taatgen 68).

Note: Brackets are placed around the word ‘are’ to indicate that the verb has been changed to the present tense, which is the preferred tense for most writing in MLA style.

A word of caution: Bracketed insertions may not be used to alter or add to the quotation in a way that inaccurately or unfairly represents the original text. Quite simply, do not use bracketed material in a way that twists the author’s meaning.

Bracket use: Quick Summary

Do Don't
Use brackets to enclose inserted words intended to clarify meaning within a quotation. Use parentheses when inserting words into a quotation.
Use brackets to enclose inserted words intended to provide a brief explanation within a quotation. Use parentheses to enclose a change in letter case or verb tense when integrating a quote into your paper.
Use brackets to enclose a change in letter case or verb tense when integrating a quote into your paper. Use bracketed material in a way that twists the author's meaning.

 

[1] Salvucci, Dario D., and Niels A. Taatgen. Multitasking Minds. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

 

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