I want to quote the following passage (actually, the original passage as somewhat longer but let's consider this a minimal working example)

Awareness of others, can address affective needs.

but the misplaced comma bothers me.

The common sic is not only often perceived to be impolite due to its overuse as a way ridicule the original author of a text, it also seems overkill in this case and – worst of all – it might not be clear that it relates to the tiny comma that comes right before but might be understood to refer to "awareness of others" instead:

Awareness of others, [sic] can address affective needs.

A missing comma could just be put in square brackets itself as a way to more or less silently add it to the quotation without misquoting but the least distracting way to remove a comma that I could come up with is

[Awareness of others] can address affective needs.

Of course silently dropping the comma would be even less distracting but it might also constitute a misquotation:

Awareness of others can address affective needs.

What is your opinion on this? Is there a standard or otherwise widely accepted way to do this?

  • 2
    I have you thought about asking over at english.se. I am not saying it is off topic here (it might be, and it might be too localized), but you might get a better answer there.
    – StrongBad
    Apr 7, 2013 at 13:52
  • 2
    @DanielE.Shub I thought about posting this to English.SE but after seeing this answer that uncritically advises the use of "sic" I'm not sure if I really share enough cultural overlap with that community to seek their advice in this matter.
    – Christian
    Apr 7, 2013 at 16:11
  • What is more, this is about acceptable behaviour in academic literature. The code of conduct might be more lax in other areas.
    – Christian
    Apr 8, 2013 at 7:45
  • I suggested English.SE because I thought you might get a better/different answer there. Clearly you have thought about it. I don't see a problem with leaving the question here.
    – StrongBad
    Apr 8, 2013 at 9:37
  • What culture(s) consider the use of [sic] as ridicule?
    – Irwin
    Apr 9, 2013 at 16:26

7 Answers 7


[Let's make an answer out of my comment to Jeff's answer with which I agree]

Alternative solution could be:

  1. to use the corrected quote without any indication of what changed
  2. to the end of the quote append a footnotemark
  3. in the footnote explain that punctuation was slightly changed in the quote with respect to the original phrase, but without changing the original meaning of the sentence.
  • 1
    As there is no consensus on what constitutes good behaviour, I find it difficult to accept a single answer (which by the logic of SE means that my question was bad). I chose your answer, however, because this is in essence what I ended up doing. Actually I didn't use a footnote but a remark set in a smaller font at the end of the blockquote. I had this remark anyway because I changed the citation style to match that of my own document. Thanks everybody for the many good suggestions and the lively discussion.
    – Christian
    Apr 9, 2013 at 7:52

Just delete the offending comma. No one will accuse you of misquoting; if they track down the original quote and notice that you've made a minor grammatical edit, they will not dwell on it long.

  • 7
    Alternatively, a solution could be to add a footnote to the corrected quote and explain there that punctuation was changed with respect to the original phrase. Sounds not very intrusive and is a full disclosure at the same time.
    – walkmanyi
    Apr 8, 2013 at 8:09
  • I like walkmanyi's suggestion!
    – Jeff
    Apr 8, 2013 at 15:27

Any emendations you make to a quoted text should be made in square brackets. These emendations should be limited to corrections necessary for grammatical do not include skipping over parts of the text, which should be done with ellipses (and then only sparingly, and not in any way which will change the meaning of the text.

In principle, then, I might write the passage as:

Author X's assertion that "[a]wareness of others [] can address effective needs" is motivated by . . .

Note that the first "a" in awareness has changed capitalization, and therefore should also be placed in brackets.

  • 3
    I'm not sure if "[]" is immediately comprehensible by most readers. Maybe "[…]" is adequate though; I had not thought of this option.
    – Christian
    Apr 7, 2013 at 16:13
  • Oh and I'd like to add that this procedure silently assumes that it is ok to add blanks without marking it. Which might just be so – I just wanted to make it explicit :)
    – Christian
    Apr 7, 2013 at 16:23
  • [...] implies that you're removing an extended chunk of the quotation; that's why I suggested "[]" or "[ ]" instead. However, since most of the readers are scholarly types, I think that this would be readily understood. If you need further clarification, you could always specify this in a note.
    – aeismail
    Apr 7, 2013 at 16:56
  • I don't know if I'm a scholarly type but I read many papers and I can't remember having encountered [] before :/ Do you happen to have a source for the "extended chunk" meaning of […]?
    – Christian
    Apr 7, 2013 at 19:51

Phrase it in such a way that you don't need the direct quotation, and just cite instead.

In related work, Doe claimed that awareness of others addresses affective needs, and that (other stuff here) [1].

[1] Doe, John. "How to address affective needs." Doe Publishing: London, 1989

The comma doesn't introduce ambiguity, so I don't see a need to point out its prior existence. Phrasing it as above also avoids you having to [sic] or footnote it or whatever.

  • 2
    In this example this is fine, but if you wanted to quote a longer passage this is not always possible.
    – Andy W
    Apr 9, 2013 at 2:28
  • @AndyW I concur and this is actually the case with the text that made me post this question.
    – Christian
    Apr 9, 2013 at 7:42

I just wanted to add this screen shot of what I ended up doing. It's essentially walkmanyi's suggestion but instead of using a footnote I wrote the remark directly underneath the block quotation in a smaller font.



Honestly, i would just drop the comma, it's a minor correction and i doubt anyone will accuse you of misquoting. Dwelling on this minor grammatical error will obfuscate the meaning of your text and could confuse readers.

Full disclosure is good, but in this case it does not add any new information for your readers. It might even do the opposite.

  • Shouldn't this answer be a comment to Jeff's answer? It's essentially the same suggestion.
    – Christian
    Apr 9, 2013 at 8:09
  • 1
    Yeai think you're right, apolagies for that, i didn't have enough rep to comment. I wanted to make clear that drawing attention to a gramatical error could make your text harder to read.
    – ThatOneGuy
    Apr 9, 2013 at 11:02
  • Ah, reputation again. I didn't think of that restriction, sorry.
    – Christian
    Apr 10, 2013 at 17:40

The answer to the question may vary depending on whether you are dealing with a simple punctuation error -- as you surmise -- or with a punctuation variant that, in the time or cultural context it was written, would have been considered acceptable. In your example, setting off a subject from the rest of the clause with commas, or setting off prepositional phrases from their head nouns, used to be unremarkable in written American English of a few hundred years ago. (Cf. Amendment 9 to the US Constitution: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.")

If it's indeed a simple error, I would second walkmanyi's suggestion to just correct and add a footnote about having made minor changes to punctuation without relevance to meaning. If it's a historical variant or a text from a different cultural context - say, Indian colonial - I would hesitate to make changes as they would necessarily introduce inauthenticity. You could then leave the text as-is and add a footnote "punctuation as in original": less intrusive and smug than "[sic]", but fulfils the same purpose.

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