The Meaning of [ ]

What does [  ] mean?

The top story in today’s online Guardian was built entirely on the use of square brackets in a document. This was taken as a sign of a widening split amongst EU contries, doubts about UK negotiations, worries in France that the UK is seeking extra protection for the City of London, and general trouble ahead for PM David Cameron.

All this from a piece of punctuation.

The Guardian had access to a leaked copy of the final draft of the plan for Britain’s renegotiated membership of the EU. As the paper explained:

In the drafts…..any mention of revising the treaty appears between square brackets – the device used in international negotiations to show there is no agreement on that issue.

It is that lack of agreement that is so significant. The brackets also highlight the areas of disagreement.

In other contexts and other circumstances square brackets could mean something entirely different. They might, for example, indicate the absence of text that is about to be inserted, an invitation to the reader to insert their own text, or highlight text that has a different origin (eg from an editor).

Of course, we are quite familiar with these different uses and generally read each one appropriately. What is fascinating about the Guardian story is how much significance is solely built upon the use of the square brackets rather than the text they contain.

It is a striking example of how, even for the simplest of marks upon a page, there is no meaning without context.



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