Suppose a source text says:

1 Timothy 2:4 says that God desires all people to be saved.

Now suppose I want to quote it like this:

It is possible for God to "desire all people to be saved."

Notice that I used 'desire' instead of 'desires'. How do I indicate this in the quote?

  • 2
    Without context, you could possibly write your quote as, "It it possible that God "desires all people to be saved," thus eliminating the need to drop the "s". Nov 25, 2014 at 4:09

5 Answers 5


You could use empty brackets with a space between them. Brackets are generally used to alter a quote inline, such as fixing grammar or to add information like a name so the quoted material will work within the context of the piece quoting it.

"desire[ ] all people to be saved"

or don't quote that word:

It is possible for God to want "all people to be saved."

  • 3
    I think it is smoother to rephrase. You could do something like, "It is possible that God 'desires all people to be saved.'" This way you keep the original intact. One would think this is better with any works held sacred by many people. Nov 22, 2014 at 21:12
  • 1
    depts.washington.edu/engl/askbetty/changing_quotations.php (which references MLA style) agrees with you, but I've never seen []/[ ] before. Would I be correct in guessing that it's an uncommon thing?
    – Tim S.
    Nov 22, 2014 at 22:37
  • @TimS. I don't have any references to back up that guess, but my instinct is to agree that it's uncommon. I haven't seen it often. I think people just drop the single letter or find a way to reword it. Nov 23, 2014 at 1:41

I would go with the following.

It is possible for God to "[desire] all people to be saved."

To me, this suggests that the original quote clearly implied the word desire; a rephrasing like It is possible for God to desire "all people to be saved." leaves more ambiguity.

  • 2
    I have to say that putting "desire" in brackets makes me think that desire was not the actual word, so if I were to look it up and find out that it was "desires," I would wonder why the writer bothered to bracket the entire word. It would seem unnecessary to my eyes. Nov 23, 2014 at 1:43
  • @LaurenIpsum Yeah, you have a point...I just wanted to present this as another option.
    – Tim S.
    Nov 23, 2014 at 1:50

In this example, just move the word in question outside the quotation marks:

It is possible for God to desire "all people to be saved."

It's more difficult in the case that the word in question is buried in the quote. In that case, you would probably just put the entire word itself in brackets.


Agree with "cut the Gordian knot" answers recommending you change your lead-in to the quote so you don't have to change the quote. The problem with that solution is that you can't always do it. So we're back to your original question.

If this is a scholarly essay/paper for a class/journal, then AFAIK you should use [], regardless of how ugly or distracting it is, because [] is the standard notation among scholars. Bracket the whole word, or bracket where the missing letter(s) would be.

If this is non-scholarly, then you have another option. In many English translations of the Bible, italic font is used for words which were not explicitly in the original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic, but which the translators felt were clearly implied and necessary for smooth flow in English. You could use that technique on the changed word. Italics has the advantage of being less intrusive than [], but the disadvantage that some readers might think the word isn't in the original at all. However, if you MUST change a quoted holy text, then you MUST indicate that somehow, consequences be darned.

(If you were adding a single letter, you could make that one letter italic. Sure, it would be hard to notice, but you're not changing the meaning so you're only obligated to obey the LETTER of the law. yukyukyuk)


Some style guides such as The Bluebook use empty square brackets for this: "to 'desire[] all people...'".

MLA, on the other hand, recommends against that or even putting the whole word in quotes; the latter can be confused with replacing the word entirely (as you might do if you used "[John]" instead of an ambiguous "he"). Instead, it recommends "paraphrasing", even going so far as to replace "approaches" with "are coming toward" in the middle of a quote:

As David Lodge’s novel Changing Places opens, “two professors of English Literature” are coming toward “each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour” (7).

In your quote, paraphrasing could be done quite elegantly, since it's the first word in the quote.

As in many cases, you can also reword: "It it possible that God 'desires all people...'"

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