Brackets — how to use them

I was asked by a customer of our e-learning Grammar course about how to use brackets in writing.  My first quick answer is: don’t, unless you really have to.

They break up sentences (you see).   They contain subordinate information, not primary information.  I often skip brackets when reading (they immediately signal that the information in them is not the main point).

On the English keyboard today we have 3 types brackets: (); []; and {}.

There are 4 ways to use them.

To clarify meaning

  • To put information within a quotation which the speaker did not say but is needed for a clearer meaning:

“I did not understand [how high the debt was].”  He said “I did not understand.”  And we add [how high the debt was] to clarify what he did not say but we understood him to mean.  Note here we use the square brackets.

For abbreviations

  • To contain an abbreviation which will be used later:

The leader of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said: “ ACPO is concerned at the level of cuts.”  Note these are the rounded brackets.

For conversions

  • To put in the conversion of a measurement:

AIG has agreed to sell its Alico brand to MetLife for $15.5bn (£9.7bn).  Note again the round brackets.

For references

  • To put a reference into a more formal type of writing which will refer to a source in a bibliography:

“At the time of the Indian Revolt of 1857, the 4,500 miles of land lines in India helped the British move troops quickly and crush the uprising in a few months.” (Headrick 1981: 158)  And the bibliography entry is:

                Headrick, Daniel R (1981) The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the 19th Century Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Note again we use rounded brackets.

Apart from these 4 anything in brackets can stop the flow of the writing, whatever type of writing it is. Don’t forget to have an equal pair of brackets.  The other type of brackets, {}, can be used to include a list of options.  But it is rather old fashioned now.

And the customer enjoyed the Grammar course, he said.

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