Whip brackets now

Bill Cloud | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Eliminating brackets in quotes Bracketed inserts in quotations can both annoy and mislead readers. They can disrupt the flow of a quotation and take away from the purpose of quotations in writing: adding liveliness to our stories. In addition, writers often use them wrongly to replace words in quotations. Readers are left puzzling over what the speaker might have actually said.

I encourage students to carefully examine bracketed inserts in stories. I ask them to put the inserts in three categories: (1) ones that are really useful, (2) ones that could be replaced by paraphrasing at least part of a quote, and (3) ones that are needless.

I warn them that before removing a bracket, they’d need to check with the writer to determine whether the bracketed word replaced a word the speaker used.

I give them a set of paragraphs with brackets in the quotes and have them discuss how they would handle the editing. The exercise makes them aware of bracketing as an issue. It’s educational how many times they decide that the bracketed material is needless.

Here is a set of sentences I have used. I suspect, however, that you would not have to spend much time with your local paper to create a fresh exercise of your own:

1. The FAA said the plane had left from Aberdeen, S.D., where Mayo worked at Orthopedic Surgery Specialists. “There will be a lot of patients in that South Dakota area that will miss [him],” said his brother, Dr. Joseph Mayo, in a telephone interview Monday.

2. Since the Illinois smoking ban took effect Jan. 1, Hurst admitted she smoked when the restaurant was closed and allowed employees and a local man who came in before 7 a.m. to smoke. Lilly’s opens daily at 7 a.m. “When I was getting ready to open, I would smoke, and locals would smoke, but one minute to 7:00 in the morning, they would put their cigarettes out before I opened to the public,” she said. “I’m smoking when I’m not open, but [the Jersey County Health Department] said I still can’t do that. [The Jersey County Health Department] said it had to be 24 hours.”

3. For many shoppers, it’s a harsh lesson about the risks of gift cards. Consumers spent an estimated $26.3 billion in gift cards at retailers alone last holiday season, compared with $24.8 billion in 2006 and $18.5 billion in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation. C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, says “you will see a lot of frustration among customers. You basically stole [money] out of the customers’ pocket. They will never forgive you.’’

4. In the meantime, conservative leaders who still strongly support Perry dismiss the notion that he has somehow come unhinged from his ideological moorings. Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative Plano, Texas-based Free Market Foundation, supports former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But he said he doesn’t harbor any ill will against Perry for his presidential picks.

“Gov. Perry, time and time again, has proven his credentials on issues that matter to us,” Shackelford said. “Hey, I’ve got friends that root for the [New York] Giants, but they’re still my friends. I just tell them, ‘You’re backing the wrong team.’ So that’s what I say to Gov. Perry: ‘You’re still my friend, but you backed the wrong team.’ ”

5. “Depression is a problem for any patient with a chronic vision problem,” she said. But in the case of post-lasik patients, she said, the depression is compounded by remorse.

“It’s not just that they lose vision,” she said. “They paid somebody [who] took their vision away.”

Discussion: When I saw that quote, I thought the writer was changing “that” to “who.” Instead, the writer was using the bracket to shorten the quote. The original: “They paid somebody and they took their vision away.”

Reporter’s explanation: In the context in which the speaker made that statement, the second “they” referred to the surgeons, so I substituted with “who” to make that clear. She later said that her paper’s style is to put brackets where quotes were changed, something I seriously doubt.

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