“Square brackets”

Delegates at the recently concluded Paris climate talks worked from a draft document in which alternate wordings were laid out next to each other. For example:

Parties [shall][agree to] to take urgent action and enhance [cooperation][support] so as to (a) Hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 2 °C][below 1.5 °C][well below 2 °C][below 2 °C or 1.5 °C] [below 1.5 °C or 2 °C][as far below 2 °C as possible] …

An article in the American publication The Atlantic noted that the draft agreement contained “well over 1,000 square brackets.”

“Square brackets” is British English for what Americans call simply “brackets.” I had never encountered the expression until a couple of months who, when an English fellow remarked how odd it seemed when something I’d written referred merely to “brackets.”

“Square brackets” has appeared very occasionally in the New York Times, for example in this 2009 blog post by Jennifer 8. Lee.

My English friend also informed me that in AmE “parentheses” (like this) are “round brackets” in BrE. “Round brackets” has never appeared in the New York Times and I imagine it never will. But as Fats Waller so eloquently said, “One never knows, do one.”

[Update. Some British commenters have said that they are not familiar with “round brackets” but merely say “brackets” for what Americans call parentheses. I certainly take them at their word but the Oxford English Dictionary does have an entry for “round brackets” with British citations, including J. P. Mahaffy Empire of Ptolemies vi. 228: “Superfluous words and syllables, written by mistake of the scribe, are enclosed in square brackets. Necessary additions or corrections in round brackets.” I have also learned from my investigations that “brackets”/”square brackets” were formerly called “crotchets.”]

43 thoughts on ““Square brackets”

  1. Parentheses, or round brackets, are commonly referred to in Britain simply as brackets, hence the need to distinguish square brackets.

  2. In drafting legal documents in Canada, I usually use square brackets for alternate text just as the drafters of the Paris Protocol are doing. Before the advent of “Comments” capability in word processing programmes, I would use round brackets for additional information as opposed to optional wording.

  3. In my experience square brackets are used to differentiate when two sets of brackets are being together, one set of brackets within another. Not pretty I agree but sometimes deemed essential. or lazy.

  4. In software engineering (in the USA) people typically talk about square brackets and curly braces all the time. I never really thought about how the “square” and “curly” are unnecessary before in that context.

    It’s similar to someone saying “forward slash” to distinguish it from a backslash, I guess.

  5. Parentheses is perfectly correct in British English but it does tend to sound a bit academic to our ears. Plain old ‘brackets’ is much more common. I write lots of books for the US and stateside editors always change my ‘brackets’ to ‘parantheses’. I’ve also never heard the term ’round’ brackets.

  6. Looks like SB are basically a Brit devise. The Economist Style Book says: Square brackets should be used for interpolations in direct quotations: “Let them [the poor] eat cake.” To use ordinary brackets implies that words inside them were part of the original text from which you are quoting.

  7. My memory of an English primary school, all those years ago, was that parenthesis was any type of bracketing, and this could be brackets, square brackets, curly brackets, and even parenthetical commas.

  8. I’ve not heard of ’round brackets’ either. I’m studying psychology and we have to use APA referencing. I get confused when they talk about ‘parentheses’. It’s just ‘brackets’! I think I would say ‘square brackets’ though, although I haven’t ever had to use them.

  9. You wouldn’t usually refer to “round brackets” except to specifically differentiate them from square ones (as in the OED citation). () are the unmarked default “bracket”, while the [] and {} variants have their own names. I suspect that’s why people are claiming to have never heard the term “round brackets” – they’ve never parsed it as a lexical item in its own right, just as a clarifying phrase.

  10. As mentioned, we Yanks have unique words for each of the three — (parentheses), [brackets], and {braces} — with none requiring a modifier. As the Brits apparently don’t use “parentheses” despite a matching definition in the following source, I was impelled to look up the origin of the term and found it comes to us “via Late Latin from Greek.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/parentheses

  11. As Carl said above, among software developers in North America the term “square brackets” has long been the norm. (And it should be noted that programmers probably use, and refer to, those characters a good deal more often than most people.) Having said that, there are some differences in British vs. American terms for ascii character symbols. The biggest divider is #, which Americans often call “pound”. The more common term in Britain is “hash” though other terms are used as well.

    In my own usage, I’d be more likely to leave off the word “-brackets” if reading aloud a line of code. Hence I’d say “left square”, “right square”, and also “left paren”, “right paren”, “left curly”, “right curly”. But I retain a lot of idiosyncratic usages in this area. I’m one of the few who refers to $ as “buck” for example.

    See here for a good list of the relevant terminology, including some of the very fanciful names sometimes used for various characters:

    1. It is perhaps not surprising that we don’t call the hash symbol a pound in the UK when, of course, we have a pound symbol on our keyboards also: £ (a curly L with a bar across the middle).

      Also in the UK, we tend not to use the hash symbol for numeration. When loading CDs into iTunes, it will often name tracks in the form, “Symphony #3” which I can’t get used to. I edit all such tracks to “Symphony No. 3.

      1. Why use No. at all, what is wrong with just 3? No. means number when the next character is a number, it seems an unnecessary three keystrokes.

      2. Having tried to use a UK computer keyboard a few times, the presence of the hash sign to the right of the single-quote has driven me to distraction. The £ sign is in a perfectly sensible place, but # is what you hit when you try to enter a newline. They should have left the ~ where it is on a US keyboard, and had # be the Alt Gr option on the 3 key. That extra key between single-quote and Enter is a hazard.

        Why did they feel the need to add a convenient way to enter the not sign ¬ on UK keyboards? Is there a reason that sign might be more often used in the UK than in the US?

      3. Dormouse said, “When loading CDs into iTunes, it will often name tracks in the form, “Symphony #3” which I can’t get used to.” What I can’t get used to is calling the pound symbol [# — a U.S. /weight/ symbol,(as opposed to £, a U.K. /currency/ symbol)] a “hash.” 😉

        One usage of # that I found interesting which hasn’t come up yet in this discussion is, “An international standards body officially named the # symbol ‘square’ in 1989. This is why the British Post Office and British Telecom call the symbol a square.”

        I pulled that quote from the following explanation of the history and many uses of this catchall symbol. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/11/origin-hashtag-symbol/

      4. Whoops. I see I neglected to change Dormouse’s double quotation marks around “Symphony #3” to single quotation marks when I quoted the entire sentence. My apologies. Too bad WordPress doesn’t allow ex post facto editing as in Facebook.

      5. I include use “Symphony No. 3” because that looks aesthetically more pleasing. And it’s not that many more keystrokes as I then cut and past it to all tracks.

        Incidentally, another computing use for the hash sign I recall is that one programming language I use for many years, a hash sign was used to indicate an octal number. So, a statement of the form x:= #17; meant that x was set to the equivalent of decimal number 15. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like using # to mean a number.

      6. For those of us still using a basic editor for .html pages the hash is used in a similar way to show that a number is in hexadecimal form. I often use it for colours. (As you can tell by the spelling I am English!)

      7. @Dormouse: I’d be curious to know what language uses # as a prefix to indicate an octal. I know of a few contexts where # is used to prefix a hexadecimal number, but I’ve never seen it used for octal.

      8. My memory is that the programming language Coral 66 used # for octal, in the implementation produced by Ferranti for their Argus computers, but it has been nearly 30 years since I programmed on those machines.

  12. In Australia, it’s ‘brackets’, ‘square brackets’ and ‘those things you get when you hold shift down by accident when trying to do square brackets’.

  13. Well you certainly learn something every day, even in my case at the age of 67. Having never ever used these ‘square brackets’, or even really been aware of them, I’ve just discovered them both sitting invitingly on my keyboard – so here goes – [ ] wha-hey! Anyway, to echo other posters, in the UK parentheses are the same as brackets, only posher.

  14. To me (in UK) “parentheses” is the grammatical concept, not the name of the symbols (it would seem wrong to me to refer to them as parentheses in mathematical expressions for example).

    1. I agree – in fact, I was taught that a parenthesis could be marked either by round brackets, commas or dashes. For example: “It is one thing to say that Tchaikovsky was a great composer of ballet music – as indeed most would assert – and another to say say that he was a great symphonist.” The bit between the dashes is a parenthesis. Whether you choose to use commas, brackets or dashes is a matter of some subtlety.

  15. A couple of years back I remember asking a mainframe programmer to send a message consisting of just a couple of [ ] and a ¤, and maybe a couple of other characters, from the mainframe to a Unix server. I then did a hexdump of the message, and looked at the encoding of those characters to determine which ebcdic code page the mainframe system was using. What larks!

  16. I’m with the other British writers who take the view that parentheses is the grammatical concept which could be commas, brackets, square brackets, or whatever.

    () are brackets. If necessary to distinguish from [] or {} or (square, curly and pointy brackets, respectively) then it can be qualified as “round” brackets – but unmarked is the normal usage.

  17. I know that all these brackets have specific functions in serious mathematics. Engineers and physicists use them in extremely complex formulae. I have asked one engineer friend who said he had no idea they had specific names…..quite odd really as he is otherwise precise in his descriptions about his professional work and research.
    The # symbol is interesting. My father was Austarlian and an Engineer. He used # to mean “pounds per Square inch” or PSI, a unit of pressure. I used # to mean fracture (as #R Femur) in what we called Casualty but is now called Emergency Department (E.D.) or A and E or … as my Canadian family say E.R. Also in North America I see people’s addresses where # clearly means “number” I find the abbreviation “No” confusing particularly when filling in a form which asks something like Telephone “No”.. Where I feel like writing “Yes” ……
    And the final ?confusion..already mentioned, # has a specific meaning to musicians when a note should be played a half tone higher up the scale.

    1. Yes, ‘#’ is always a sharp to me… I remember when I was about 12, my Canadian penpal used ‘#’ for ‘number’ which I thought was very strange!

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