9. Altering Sources

Altering Sources


In your life as a writer you will frequently encounter situations where you must alter a source quotation in some way. Generally, these alterations are used to satisfy grammar or make your writing easier to follow by removing or adding words or phrases.

  • To indicate that we have removed words from a source text we use ellipses . . . a series of periods to mark where something has been removed from the source.

  • To indicate that we have altered or added words to a source text in our own writing we use square brackets: [ ].

These alterations should be used sparingly. In fact, you should only alter a source if there is no other practical way to include the material in a quotation. Overuse of brackets or ellipsis will make your writing appear artless and lazy. However, when altering a source proves an indispensable path to crafting readable prose, brackets and ellipsis are helpful tools.

Be careful that the quote you present to the reader is an accurate reflection of the original text; it is improper to alter a text so that it says something the author did not really intend.

Ellipsis . . .

We use ellipses to show when we have altered a source text by omitting words, sentences, or paragraphs. However, be careful that the quote you present to the reader is an accurate reflection of the original text.

How do I use ellipsis?

[Source Text]

      At the heart of the environmentalist worldview is the conviction that human physical and spiritual health depends on sustaining the planet in a relatively unaltered state. Earth is our home in the full, genetic sense, where humanity and its ancestors existed for all the millions of years of their evolution. Natural ecosystems—forests, coral reefs, marine blue waters—maintain the world exactly as we would wish it to be maintained. Our body and our mind evolved precisely to live in this particular planetary environment and no other. When we debase the global environment and extinguish the variety of life, we are dismantling a support system that is too complex to understand, let alone replace, in the foreseeable future (238).

– E.O. Wilson, “Is Humanity Suicidal?

  • Omission in the middle of a sentence:

    Wilson argues that “Natural ecosystems . . . maintain the world exactly as we would wish it to be maintained” (50).

  • Omission of the ending of one sentence and the beginning of another:

    As Wilson states, “At the heart of the environmentalist worldview is the conviction that human physical and spiritual health depends on sustaining the planet . . . . where humanity and its ancestors existed for all the millions of years of their evolution” (50).

  • Omission of one or more sentences:

    Wilson says that “At the heart of the environmentalist worldview is the conviction that human physical and spiritual health depends on sustaining the planet in a relatively unaltered state. . . . When we debase the global environment and extinguish the variety of life, we are dismantling a support system that is too complex to understand, let alone replace, in the foreseeable future” (50).

Special considerations with ellipsis

  • Omission at the beginning of a sentence:

    It is often unnecessary to use ellipsis when you have omitted the beginning of a sentence. Since the portion of the quote you present will begin with a lower case letter, it will be obvious to the reader that it does not begin the sentence in the original text. Thus, for the most part, ellipsis will only occur in the middle or the end of a sentence. Consider the following examples; only example c requires the use of ellipsis to begin a quote:

    a) With bracket:

    “[H]uman physical and spiritual health,” Wilson writes, “depends on sustaining the planet in a relatively unaltered state” (50).

    b) Lowercase letter:

    According to Wilson, “human physical and spiritual health depends on sustaining the planet in a relatively unaltered state” (50).

    c) Proper noun in the original:

    As Terrance Smith relates, “. . . Wilson argues that we must protect the planet if we want to protect ourselves” (99).

    Since “Wilson” is a proper noun, it is capitalized. This may lead the reader to falsely assume that it is the beginning of a sentence in the original text. Therefore, ellipsis is used to clarify that the original sentence begins earlier.

  • Using a short phrase or word:

    When quoting a short phrase or single word there is no need to use ellipsis since it will be clear to your readers that this has been taken from a longer sentence:

    Wilson describes Earth as “our home” (50).

[Brackets]


How do I use brackets?

Square brackets are used to indicate an alteration or addition to a source text. Generally, you will use brackets in three circumstances: 1) to add clarifying information, 2) to alter a word in the interest of grammar, or 3) to alter capitalization. A few examples:

  1. James McMinnis maintains that “the city [Los Angeles] is one of the most horrific places on the face of the earth” (88).

  2. Dillard concludes her essay by saying that she “think[s] it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go” (34).

  3. “[H]uman physical and spiritual health,” Wilson writes, “depends on sustaining the planet in a relatively unaltered state” (50).