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"[t]he company engaged..."

I read a quote earlier starting with these words, and I am unsure of the meaning of the square brackets encapsulating the "t".

A cursory search online doesn't seem to yield anything relevant. Aside from being used for [sic] or other words that were not part of the original quotation, this doesn't seem to apply here as "the" seems to be intended.

My personal theory is that while there is a "t" there, it was originally capitalized then put in square brackets when it was lowercased.

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    In answer to the question title, this article gives a decent summary of ways that square brackets are used in quoting: grammar-monster.com/lessons/brackets_square_brackets.htm
    – LarsH
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 13:24
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    In general, anything in square brackets is not in the original, though you can often infer what was there instead. (Good luck quoting something that itself uses square brackets :) )
    – chepner
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 15:33
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    A little (usually only typographical) modification to the original quote. Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 13:08

3 Answers 3

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When quoting something, you are representing that this is what the source of the quote said precisely. As a result, if an alteration to the quote is required for any reason, many people use square brackets to indicate that an alteration, however minor, has taken place.

In your example, absolutely yes, square brackets indicate that the 't' was originally capitalised in the source, but has been altered to lower case.

Other examples can include changing the form of a verb:

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he "[wants] to lead the country into a new age of prosperity".

Here the original quote might have been "I want to lead the country into a new age of prosperity"; we use square brackets to show that the form of the verb was altered.

This can similarly be used to change things like pronouns into the equivalent names they reference, or otherwise to tweak the grammar to make a short section of a quote make sense in the context in which it will be used.

Ellipses, sometimes but not always also placed in square brackets, can also be used to indicate that the quote has been shortened. This will often also be accompanied by words in square brackets that have been rewritten to make sense in the new shortened quote. So a silly example like:

"I want to lead the country into a new age of prosperity. I saw a survey the other day, while I was reading the morning paper, which said that nine out of ten people believe this country is not as prosperous as it could be."

Might be shortened like this:

"I want to lead the country into a new age of prosperity. [...] [A survey] said that nine out of ten people believe this country is not as prosperous as it could be."

The final use of square brackets in quotes is with the word sic which indicates that a quote is exactly as written, and that something that appears like it might be an error was actually present in the original quote. This is the same regardless of whether the apparent error is actually an error — it can be used both to point out an actual error in the original, and to point out something that looks like an error but isn't. Therefore sic can be used when something looks erroneous regardless of whether you know for sure that it was an actual error.

For instance, you might see something like:

"Despite the constant negative press covfefe [sic]"

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  • To add to the list: also used when replacing a pronoun. For example, if someone said "I know Bob, he and I went to the same school," it could be quoted as "[Bob] and I went to the same school."
    – IceGlasses
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 16:06
  • @IceGlasses good point, I intended it to be more of a list of examples but my conclusion makes it sound exhaustive. Let me add some new wording to make this clear :)
    – Muzer
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 17:14
  • There is also one important exception to be aware of. In American English at least, it is acceptable and common to change the final punctuation of a quote without using square brackets. For example, the NIV and most other modern translations of the first chapter of Genesis say, ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ This does not imply that “Let there be light” is not a complete sentence that should end with a period. The period is changed into a comma to fit seamlessly into the surrounding sentence.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 19:57
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    Ah, yeah, I'd forgotten about the covfefe... :) Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 22:56
  • @Davislor We can change the punctuation at the end of a quote for other reasons too. For example, a bible study director might ask "What did God mean when He said, 'Let there be light?'" This is because it would look silly to try to stack punctuation together, as in the alternative, "[...] 'Let there be light.'?". Or, in the American style with all punctuation within the quotation marks, "[...] 'Let there be light.?.'" Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 18:55
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Basically, the square brackets indicate "this quote was altered to make grammatical sense of the quotation in its new context."

One use is to lower-case, or upper-case, the initial letter. Others are to change tense, from past to present or future, or vice versa, or from singular to plural or vice versa.

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No universal meaning is or could be attributed to square brackets or any other punctuation mark, except full stops. The use and meaning even of simple commas is often open to question.

It's generally accepted that "ordinary" brackets - as "()" confer special meaning but again, what special meaning is often open to question. Often, using "(stuff)" is no different from "-stuff-" or "- stuff -"

Though square brackets are useful for distinguishing their content from any other, outside mathematics there is no universally accepted meaning for other than "ordinary" brackets - as "()", in or outside quotes.

The example you Posted is perfectly reasonable but by no means universally applicable, nor more commonly accepted.

To attribute specific meaning to any brackets, you would need to invoke a particular house style, whether that belonged to your own publication or institution, or was - as is often the case - merely borrowed.

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    This answer seems grossly misleading. What other reasonably common meanings exist for square brackets within a quotation? As far as I know, the only reasonably common meaning is an indication that the quotation has been edited to differ from the original text. Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 3:23
  • -1 The use of square brackets to mean insertions or alterations in quotations is a convention, but a widely used one. All the major style guides use it,can you cite even one that does not? This convention iss about as commo0n as the convention to use square brackets for "absolute value" in math notation. This answer is simply incorrect Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 18:02
  • @TannerSwett Sorry you so badly missed the point, and it is wholly irrelevant what other meanings might exist, or whether they might be common in your experience. If you have evidence either that anything is "common" or that being common, this or that example sets a precedent, please Post it… else why not either drop it, or try without evidence to argue your case in Chat? Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 0:43
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    @RobbieGoodwin I don't get the impression that you're arguing in good faith. Have a good day. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 1:21
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    @Robb I tend to agree with Tanner's latest cmt. But for the benefit of others: This use of square brackets is supported by Chicago, MLA, APA & AP style guides, & by Grammerly It is as universal as the convention of using quote marks to show quotations. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 4:55

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