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Brackets are used to add supplementary information to a clause or sentence.

In an essay, they are also used when referencing sources, or to add non-verbatim elements to quotations. There are two types of bracket, round() and square [ ]. Round brackets are also called parentheses.

Round brackets are used to add asides, explanations, exceptions and examples and are often interchangeable with commas. Have a look at the following:

  • The first time I got the train to London it was to visit my mother’s auntie I didn't know which station I had to get off at.

This sentence is grammatically incorrect and does not make sense. However, this can be easily remedied by adding brackets:

  • The first time I got the train to London (it was to visit my mother’s auntie) I didn't know which station I had to get off at.

The section in brackets gives information supplementary to the main thread of the sentence and, in order to make sense, it needs to be separated using brackets. Anything written in brackets must be grammatically complete in its own right as it is treated as distinct from the main sentence.

Round brackets can be used to create a list:

  • My main aim was a) to pass the exam and b) to get accepted into university.

Note that in this case we have only used the 'close' bracket- some people argue that you should always use 'complete' brackets, but this is one situation where using just one is acceptable.

Round brackets are also used when referencing sources in an essay, depending on the referencing style being used. Whether paraphrasing or quoting directly, the convention is to include information about the reference (such as author's name, title of the source and page number) in round brackets at the end of the sentence. If brackets come at the end of a sentence, the full-stop goes after the closing bracket.

Square brackets are used to amend direct quotations, either by adding an explanation or to make them fit the grammar of the surrounding sentence. This is often done to change a letter from lower to uppercase, or vice versa. For example:

  • In sonnet 116, Shakespeare declares that love [w]hich alters when it alteration finds is not true love;
  • [T]he marriage of true minds is what Shakespeare defines love as in sonnet 116.

An explanation can be added as follows:

  • Shakespeare calls love the star to every wandering bark [ship]to create an image of consistency.

Square brackets are also used in direct quotations to indicate that a spelling or grammatical error is being quoted, by using the term [sic].

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