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Unfortunately I can't find a reference now, but many times I'll read an article either in print or online, and I'll see a certain word or phrase in brackets []. Here's a bad ex.

The man walked up the [hill] at night. My guess would be that these brackets are used to emphasize something but what?

Also a side question, I'm reading a book and I've seen it appear a couples times. Seemingly for no reason

I'll see * * * in between paragraphs.

Can anyone shed light on these matters. Thanks!

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Bracketed statements are typically found inside quotes. The words are bracketed to indicate that they were not the exact words from the quotes, but are either paraphrased or included to give clarity to the words.

To use your example a little bit, suppose that the actual quote you want to refer to was:

"See that hill over there? The man walked up that thing last night."

Now, if all you care about is that second sentence, you can't just quote it by itself, because there's no indication of what "that thing" is. So you compromise by inserting the brackets to clarify what the quote is referring to:

According to witnesses, the man "walked up [the hill] last night."

For the second part of your question, what you're seeing are just scene breaks. They are placed between paragraphs to indicate to the reader that the paragraph above and the one below are not connected. They either take place in different areas, or at different times, or are in some other way unconnected.

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  • Couldn't have asked for a better answer. Thanks
    – CSharper
    Oct 31 '14 at 3:48
  • @Roger is absolutely right in the vast majority of cases. In computer-programming or power-user contexts online or in books, square brackets are used to show characters (letters) which are optional, like this: cat[s] meaning cat or cats. It's from the use of square brackets in regular expressions.
    – A E
    Oct 31 '14 at 21:05
  • Square brackets are also used if you're just going bracket-crazy, and you're just stuffing those parentheticals inside those parentheticals like some sort of terducken sentence. (Hint: Don't do it. [Really, don't do it.])
    – MiraAstar
    Oct 31 '14 at 23:33
  • @AE I'm not aware of programmers who convert regular expressions into presented writing /(, but|and(\/or)?)/ I could be wrong. And wouldn't your "regex" there mean "cats" only, and not "cat" or "cats" since there is no following quantifier? And when talking brackets, let us not forget the mother of all bracket-lovers: Objective-c, lol. [[answer alloc] initWithSarcasm:YES]; Nov 2 '14 at 6:42
  • Hi @JeremyMiller, it's definitely informal usage, but you do see it. Example: "[ANNOUNCE] London Perl M[ou]ngers October Social" (london.pm.org/pipermail/london.pm-announce/2013-October/…). In this example the first set of square brackets shows the category of the email, while the second set is regexp-usage showing (in a humorous way) that some people call the group "Perl Mongers" while other people call it "Perl Mungers" - either the 'o' or the 'u' character is acceptable.
    – A E
    Nov 2 '14 at 16:56

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