When reading news articles, you’ve probably seen the letters “sic” appear within quotations, usually in square brackets. If you’re not sure what it means, or the appropriate contexts in which to use it, then this article will explain all you need to know.
What does [sic] mean?
In short, “[sic]” is used to mark an error in a quoted text. This can be a grammatical or spelling error. It can also be a factual error, though this is less common, as quotes containing factual errors tend to either need a more detailed explanation or not to be used at all!
“[Sic]” is used when the text is quoted verbatim. The purpose is to tell the reader that it was the writer of the quoted piece of writing who made the error, not the writer of the current article. So, it’s effectively a way of laying the blame clearly on the quoted author and asserting that you do know how to spell, really.
Where does it come from?
“[Sic]” is often assumed to be an abbreviation, like “etc.” or “e.g.” It’s often assumed to stand for “spelled in context.” Though it does make sense and may help you remember the meaning, this assumption is not actually correct.
Like “etc.” and “e.g.” and a lot of other fancy linguistic terms, “sic” is from Latin, but it’s a word, not an abbreviation. It’s the Latin word for “thus” or “so.” When you use it within a quote, you’re effectively saying, “thus it was written.”
“if your [sic] gonna advise all of us we need you to have our backs on the other end of this,” James tweeted at the NFLPA’s Twitter account. – Washington Times
“Thank you for reaching out regarding your concern over a Jeapardy [sic] contestant flashing what you believed to be a white power hand signal,” wrote Aaron Ahlquist, of the A.D.L. – New York Times
When should you use [sic] in your writing
“[Sic]” shows up in a wide range of writing styles, but particularly in formal writing. In journalistic writing, such as the above examples, it is used to retain the accuracy of the quote. If a newspaper writer were to edit errors in quotes, readers might question whether they’re also making edits to adjust the original author’s meaning, and questions of journalistic ethics would inevitably become involved.
But newspaper readers expect a high standard of written English, and so the use of “[sic]” is a handy compromise, telling the readers that the news article has both ethical and linguistic integrity.
For similar reasons, “[sic]” also shows up regularly in academic writing and legal documents, where it is important to quote sources verbatim.
When not to use [sic]
There are some times when, though you may be quoting a source with an error, it can be inappropriate to use “[sic].” In more informal writing, such as personal blogs and marketing copy, or when writing about less serious subjects, it can seem too formal.
It can also seem unnecessarily rude to the original writer to point out their error. If you’re posting a customer testimonial on your website and highlight their grammar errors, you might not get such a positive review from them next time!
Even in formal writing, it can be bad form to highlight every error. If you’re quoting a social media post containing a lot of spelling mistakes—as social media posts often do—it may look pompous and clutter the text to put “[sic]” after every one of them. There is no hard-and-fast rule, so use your judgement.
Before adding "[sic]," it's also worth double-checking that what you think is an error is indeed incorrect. What you think is an unusual spelling may simply be a nonstandard form you're not familiar with, or a difference between American and British English.
Alternatives to using [sic]
If you’re in one of those situations where using “[sic]” might be inappropriate, there are a few alternative approaches you can take:
Edit the quote to correct the error. This isn’t appropriate in formal writing where you need to quote verbatim, but in more informal writing—especially when the quoted person is on your side, such as with customer testimonials—correcting a small error is the easiest and most effective option.
- Paraphrase the original source material rather than using a direct quote. If verbatim quoting isn’t necessary, then writing it in your own words can often help the flow of your article while removing any errors.
- Simply ignore the error. If you need to keep the quote intact but think “[sic]” might cause clutter or offense, just leave it as it is. Your readers probably won’t think any less of you.
- Omit the section of the quote with the error, and connect the two parts either side with an ellipsis. This may not work if a misspelled word is vital to the sentence’s meaning, however.
“[Sic]” is used to mark spelling and grammatical errors in a quoted text in order to inform the reader that the error was made by the writer being quoted, not the writer of the text they’re currently reading. There are many contexts where it’s appropriate to use “[sic],” particularly formal writing such as newspaper articles, academic essays, and legal documents.
However, it’s often inappropriate to use “[sic],” where it might clutter the text, seem unnecessarily petty, or offend the quoted author. This tends to be in more informal outlets such as blogs and marketing copy. There are several alternative approaches you can take, such as editing the quote, paraphrasing, or even swallowing your copywriter’s pride and leaving the error be.
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Kieron Moore is a writer, script editor and filmmaker living in Manchester, England. As part of the Eleven Writing team, his specialisms include video editing and how to correctly use an apostrophe. He can be found on Twitter at @KieronMoore, usually when he’s meant to be writing.