We Need to Talk About Brackets

Punctuation is politics.

I’ve said it before. In a post on this blog titled, “We Need to Talk About Ellipses,” I wrote, “[T]he basic job of the ellipsis is to fill in for a missing chunk of text in a direct quote. This gives it, along with the quotation mark, a certain moral weight–it’s punctuation with a conscience. After all, an unscrupulous writer can butcher a quote in a way to make its originator appear to say anything.”

Time to add another punctuation mark to that list.

On April 6, Mark Brnovich, Attorney General of Arizona, sent a 12-page letter to State Senator Karen Fann claiming “serious vulnerabilities that must be addressed” in the 2020 Maricopa County elections. (Maricopa County, if you recall, is where the now-defunct Cyber Ninjas conducted its disastrous audit.) In the letter, Brnovich wrote this [emphasis in original]:

I stood up before the U.S. Supreme Court and defended Arizona’s common-sense laws protecting against ballot harvesting and out-of-precinct voting. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in our favor…Prominent liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky lamented it as “the most important decision of 2021.” He said, “Brnovich will make it much more difficult to challenge [common-sense election integrity measures enacted by states,] and these laws could play a decisive role in the 2022 and 2024 elections.”

I smelled a rat–a bracketed one. While ellipsis is used to flag an absence, brackets are used to flag a minor alteration. Sometimes, you need to change a small-case letter to a capital. Sometimes, you need to change verb tense. And, sometimes, you need to change or add a word to make it more clear in context. The goal is to maintain the integrity of the quote–and the person using it–by modifying it as little as possible. In any case, you can’t just deploy brackets to change a part of a quote to something you wish it said or to something more in line with your particular thesis.

I showed the above quote to the only people who would be likely to share my outrage: my students in the prison. Not surprisingly, they picked up on the violation without any prompting from me. (Earlier in the semester, we had gone over the finer points of academic punctuation, and they were using them with gusto.) One student said, “Mr. G., I bet you looked up the original quote.” Of course I did. Brnovich–which hooray, I guess?–actually provided a link. Here’s Chemerinsky:

But in Brnovich, the Supreme Court, 6-3, made it much more difficult to bring suit to succeed in suits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Chemerinsky: The most significant Supreme Court cases of 2021

Notice that, all punctuation issues aside, Chemerinsky is simply misquoted, and the part about “the 2022 and 2024 elections” doesn’t appear until two paragraphs down, with Brnovich offering neither an ellipsis nor a [snip]. Another student asked, “Wait a minute: wouldn’t anybody who doesn’t know what brackets are just assume this quote was correct?”

And that’s it, you see. Brnovich’s insidious use of brackets would go entirely unnoticed by most readers–including, presumably, Karen Fann–who would simply read the quote as objective fact. (We’re not even going to get into the catty use of “lamented,” the cheesy bold print, and the utter hackishness of that dangling comma.)

Hamlet once said, “I have that within which passeth show; / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.” What Brnovich has here are the “trappings and the suits” of reason, which–despite all his protestations of fairness and calls for bipartisanship–only serve to reveal his true intentions. Now, not being an elections expert, I don’t know if any of Brnovich’s claims of election fraud are accurate, but EJ Montini, columnist at The Arizona Republic, said that the investigation actually “turn[ed] up bupkis.” Given Brnovich’s grammatical deviousness, I’m inclined to believe it.

One thought on “We Need to Talk About Brackets

  1. As always, Mike, you have produced a thought-provoking and very well written piece. This essay will actually serve a Jiminy Cricket-like role for me, reminding me to be more careful in my own use of punctuation. Well… done!


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