Quoting a phrase from an article:

Grubb’s first overdose was on Aug. 15, 2015. Her mother found her blue on her bedroom floor, a tourniquet around her arm and a needle next to her. Paramedics revived her. “[I]t literally scared her to death,” David Grubb said of his daughter. “I mean, she knew that it happened to other people, but I don’t think she really thought it could happen to her, that she could control it.”

Why is "I" in brackets?

  • 30
    Sidenote: the usage of "literally" in that sentence is (almost certainly) frowned upon by prescriptivists, because his daughter (almost certainly) was not actually scared literally to death.
    – geometrian
    Mar 30, 2016 at 15:52
  • 14
    @imallett Now we're being pedantic anyway, it's a "side note", with a space.
    – Mr Lister
    Mar 30, 2016 at 19:20
  • 9
    @imallett I wanted to remark that, too, but as she needed to be revived the use of "literally" seem to be appropriate this one time Mar 31, 2016 at 10:04
  • 1
    MrLister, @Hagen and Oliphaunt - While it is pedantic imallet is right. it was only after she had been revived that she was 'literally scared to death' according to the quote and there is no mention of her having to be revived twice.
    – flurbius
    Apr 1, 2016 at 11:46
  • 4
    One of the definitions of literally is literally not literally. See #4 and the usage example.
    – wim
    Apr 1, 2016 at 21:08

4 Answers 4


Style guides advise us to use square brackets when we have to change something about a quotation to make it fit grammatically with the sentence where we're using the quotation. Usually, in a case like this, it just means that the capitalization is being changed.

For example, David Grubb might have literally said

When she overdosed, it literally scared her to death.

But the author didn't want to include the "When she overdosed" part, because we already know that's what we're talking about, and repeating it would be redundant. So the author just includes the "it literally scared her to death" part. But the beginning of a sentence should begin with a capital letter! What should we do? Use brackets to indicate you've changed something, making it "[I]t literally scared her to death."

Reference: The Bracket

  • 4
    I don't bother for caps anymore, because on reading this back I think the word previously wasn't it but another word ending in t.
    – Joshua
    Mar 30, 2016 at 15:14
  • 15
    I don't think that "the beginning of a direct quotation should begin with a capital letter". (See, I just quoted you directly without capitalizing it!) Here the "i" is the first letter of a sentence, so it should be capitalized. Mar 30, 2016 at 15:44
  • 8
    @Joshua You don't leave in the letters that match when doing this. If they replaced a word, the whole thing would be in brackets. It's just capitalization, some style guides do it that way Mar 30, 2016 at 20:18
  • 14
    As already observed, "the beginning of a direct quotation" does not need to "begin with a capital letter". On the other hand, the first word of a sentence does need to start with a capital letter. So simply change "the beginning of a direct quotation" to "the first word of a sentence" and this answer will be fine.
    – David K
    Mar 30, 2016 at 21:09
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    The beginning of a direct quotation should start with a capital letter. The exception is if the quotation is integrated into the quoting sentence and the quotation is not the beginning of a sentence, as the comment examples above show. He said, "She said that I should 'always use proper grammar.'"
    – Jed Schaaf
    Mar 31, 2016 at 14:31

Brackets appear in quotes whenever the author changed the text of the original quote. Sometimes the author will put "[...]" in brackets to indicate that some text has been removed, for example. Here, the author has changed the letter "I" in the quote, probably from a lowercase "i" so that the beginning of the sentence was capitalized. The original quote could have been something like this:

When the paramedics rescued her, it literally scared her to death!

The author removed the first part, and made the second part its own sentence:

it literally scared her to death!

But then had to change the first letter to a capital, so he/she put it in brackets

[I]t literally scared her to death!


Brackets are used to indicated text that has been added or modified in a quote, usually to make it fit the grammar in a sentence.

In this case, in the original quote "it" was not the first word of the sentence and so would not be capitalized. But they left something off at the beginning, and so they had to capitalize the "i". To show that this is not quite an exact quote, they put brackets around it.

You may see a name or other identification in brackets if the part of the original statement that identified the person or thing is not included in the quote. Like suppose someone said, "Al is an honest man. Bob doesn't trust him, but he wouldn't lie." You want to quote this, but for the sake of brevity you want to leave off the first sentence. Without that, the reader has no idea who "him" and "he" are. So you can write, "Bob doesn't trust [Al], but [Al] wouldn't lie."

Finally, you may see a whole word in brackets when the writer had to change the tense of a verb or some such to fit the sentence. Like someone says, "I frequently post on Stack Exchange." You want to quote this, but you want to shift the "I" to the name of the person who made the statement. You could write, "Bob said that he 'frequently post[s] on Stack Exchange'."

Of course you should only do this if it doesn't change the meaning of the quote. Quoting "I will do X" as "I will [not] do X" is not acceptable! Subtler changes could be misleading. That's why we use the brackets: to warn the reader that you've made a subtle change that you think does not alter the meaning, but that the reader should be on guard about.


Whatever was originally said, it wasn't "It". I'm guessing the original quote was "That literally scared her to death," which begs the question, "What is 'That'?" Changing "that" to "it" clarifies the overdose, not the paramedics reviving Grubbs' daughter scared her. Both "that" and "it" end in "t" so "I" was inserted and "t" left intact.

Sort of the opposite of using [sic] when incorrect spelling or grammar are quoted intact instead of correcting. A good example of why [sic] is often a good choice, too.

If I got all that punctuation above even close to correct, that's or it's amazing! :)

  • 3
    If this is indeed what happened, it's wrong — in that case, the entire substituted word should be in brackets, not just the first letter (even if the rest is the same).
    – mattdm
    Apr 1, 2016 at 8:46
  • Begging the question is not the same as raising the question. See the wikipedia page.
    – zondo
    Apr 1, 2016 at 23:54

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