I Have Something to Say

Stop Defacing Quotes With Brackets!

Yes, I’m talking to [you].

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, standing outside, holding a handgun
Warner Bros.

Mostly I don’t get upset about other people’s grammar and usage. I believe, as a matter of principle and practice, that it’s bad to get upset about other people’s language choices. People who correct other people’s language are invariably rude, are almost always transparently insecure, and are very, very often wrong.

Nevertheless—or maybe because of this—I was mad when I read a particular sentence on Esquire’s website this week. My getting mad is in no way a judgment on the writer, who had produced an adroit and thoughtful essay on the problem of truly loving a work of art while sincerely objecting to its cultural politics. The work in question is Christopher Guest’s comedy Waiting for Guffman, which the writer has enjoyed for years but which he also now can’t help reading as an artifact of a time when homophobia was deeply ingrained in popular humor.

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But when the writer imagines how younger audiences, born after the revolution in gay rights, might see the movie today, the piece contains this sentence:

They may groan when Corky, denied the massive funding he’s asked for, tells the town council he’s going to “go home and bite [his] pillow,” the way I do now.

What the sentence means to say is that Corky tells the town council he’s going to “go home and bite my pillow.” This is the string of words uttered by the character named Corky, set off in quotation marks, to indicate that Corky said them. Yet for some reason this sentence—by an evidently smart writer in a respected publication—is afraid to say it plainly. Instead, it deploys a completely pointless set of brackets, mangling the wording of the quote, for no good reason.

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Again, this is nothing against the writer. It is possibly a little something against the editor. But really it is something against a vast, creeping false belief, which is causing writers to undermine themselves. It has been finding its way into more and more pieces of writing, by more and more writers, until this time it finally exhausted my patience.

“It finally exhausted [his] patience,” Scocca wrote. No! Cut it out! The quotation marks have established the provenance of the words inside the quotation marks. There is no need to change the words. It is wrong to change them.

Yes, wrong. Most language choices are a matter of people or publications finding the style and idiom that are most suitable for their own purposes. But this is the other kind of choice: a fussy act of overcorrection, for the sake of some imagined nitpicking reader: “Corky” is in the third person; “my” would be in the first person—what if someone should notice they don’t match, and complain?

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Then that someone would be a dolt who does not understand the basic rules of American English punctuation. Stop catering to such a person, who I hope is strictly imaginary! They are ruining your perfectly good quotes! The way the words are is the way the words are supposed to be. That’s why it’s a quote!

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This is not a question of mere taste or preference. Juliet did not say “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore [is he] Romeo.” The Beatles did not sing “[They] Want[ed] to Hold [Someone’s] Hand.” Human beings quite easily and naturally follow grammar as it shifts from one point of view to another. Imagine Dirty Harry if he had been trapped not merely by a criminal-coddling rulebook, but by an imaginary grammar police supervisor:

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[He] know[s] what [he is] thinking: Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell [him] the truth, in all this excitement, [he has] kinda lost track [himself]. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow [his] head clean off, [he has] got to ask [himself] one question: [Does he] feel lucky? Well, [does he], punk?

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A set of brackets is a barrier to understanding between the reader and the writer. When you use brackets, you are declaring that you want to quote something, but it doesn’t really say what you want it to say. The reader is left to guess what you changed and why you changed it, and whether they trust you to have represented it correctly.

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The Associated Press Stylebook tells people not to use brackets at all because they “cannot be transmitted over news wires.” But the AP also discourages the use of parentheses to do the job of brackets: “In general, avoid using parenthetical clarifications in quoted material. If such a clarification is needed, it’s almost always better to paraphrase.”

Sometimes you have to use brackets anyway. Maybe the speaker or writer was using an acronym or a completely unfamiliar piece of jargon that the reader needs explained. Maybe they were referring to a person by their last name or nickname, when the reader has not yet been introduced to the person’s full name. But these changes should be both necessary and obvious.

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If the changes are not obvious, don’t use the quote; if they’re not necessary, don’t use the brackets. The goal is to present the quotation as directly as possible. The quotation marks take care of that! Otherwise you look shifty, or confusing, or just plain weird.

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I have been told that this bracketing fetish may come from academia, where formal rules of writing are a kind of hazing and where sounding faintly like a space alien could be mistaken for rigor. The academics are also wrong to do it. Presumably they believe it’s OK to vivisect quotations because the reader can always go to their footnotes and look up the original text to see what it actually says. But the cited journal articles are frequently paywalled. And if people are starting from the original text, as soon as you throw in a bracketed emendation, you’ve made it impossible for them to find your work through an exact-quote search. For the sake of spurious precision, you’ve severed the connection between your work and the relevant source material.

Let people talk to other people in their own words! Speaker to reader, age to age, unaltered and uncluttered. This fad for rectification is wrongification. Quote me on that—not [him], me.

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