Grammar Figuring Out the Trick Behind [sic] |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Figuring Out the Trick Behind [sic]

[Note that our discussion of this topic also has been updated as it applies to use in 2024.]

We’ve all seen it at some point when reading: a three-letter package in brackets. It follows text to draw attention to or make a point about it.

We’re talking about [sic]. What is it—and when do we accurately use it?

Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains that sic is Latin for “so, thus.” It is a complete word and so requires no punctuation for abbreviation. It is inserted within brackets after quoted text to establish its accuracy as a quotation. In essence, sic stands for “in case you’re in doubt, this appeared in the original material.”

On that note, writers should include [sic] after something quoted only when they intuit readers will doubt it as presented. The Associated Press Stylebook further advises to exclude [sic] unless it is in material being quoted—i.e., writers should not employ it within their own writing.

Common examples of quoted text prompting insertion of [sic] are obvious and likely unintentional misspellings, misused words, and imprecise statements. For instance, if quoting a political luminary known as well spoken, writers might include [sic] if the individual speaks atypically: “I just don’t know what lays [sic] ahead with all of the activism mounting against the legislation,” said Sen. Brackenridge.

Another otherwise articulate speaker might be caught saying, “We are excited about the enormity [sic] of the attendance for this year’s event.” Here, the speaker is misusing the word “enormity,” which means “monstrous wickedness.”

If quoting from a column that includes “Upon becoming a state in 1947, Israel…,” writers would add [sic] after the opening phrase because Israel became a state in 1948 (“Upon becoming a state in 1947 [sic], Israel…”).

At the same time, [sic] should not be used to emphasize what appears incorrect but is used intentionally. For example, a slogan for a state lottery game might read “Daily Scratch: It’s a lotto pay for those who play!” Inserting [sic] after “lotto” would be unnecessary when quoting that content because most people can understand it as word play. Similarly, quoting writing or speech from different U.S. regions will often allow for variations in dialect, which could include alternate spellings, expressions, and contractions.

Typographical treatment of the bracketed word is often a matter of writer’s preference. Where many writers present it as [sic] (italics), others will use [sic] (no italics). The Chicago Manual of Style advises italicizing it because of its “peculiar use in quoted matter.”

In sum, remember [sic] applies to addressing potential reader doubt about unintentional errors in your quoted content. Also exclude it from your own writing beyond any material you quote. Maintaining these guidelines, you’ll ensure that [sic] rarely—if ever—tricks you.

Pop Quiz

Identify whether the insertion of [sic] in the following quoted material is warranted. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “I can’t believe y’all [sic] got so worked up about a little break in the main pipe.” (Yes / No)

2. “What the council thought was the problem proved to be vice-a-versa [sic].” (Yes / No)

3. “Irregardless [sic], the manager stuck to his lineup for the playoffs even though the GM was against it.” (Yes / No)

4. “Southwest Airlines attributes much of its recent success to its emphasis on ‘transfarency’ [sic].” (Yes / No)


Pop Quiz Answers

1. “I can’t believe y’all [sic] got so worked up about a little break in the main pipe.” No: common regional dialect

2. “What the council thought was the problem proved to be vice-a-versa [sic].” Yes: should be vice versa

3. “Irregardless [sic], the manager stuck to his lineup for the playoffs even though the GM was against it.” Yes: Irregardless is not a word

4. “Southwest Airlines attributes much of its recent success to its emphasis on ‘transfarency’ [sic].” No: transfarency is an intentional play on the words transparency and fare

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

7 responses to “Figuring Out the Trick Behind [sic]”

  1. Rich K. says:

    I’m challenging your definition of “enormity” as only “monstrous wickedness.” Your article makes it seem as though this is
    the only definition. “Enormity” also means “immensity” and, arguably, “immensity” is the most common and universal
    definition of the word. Therefore, the manner in which “enormity” is used in your article
    is actually correct, not incorrect as you state. Actually, the speaker did not misuse the word. He was referencing the
    size of the audience as being enormous, which is a correct definition and usage of “enormity.”

    • The main definition of enormity is and always has been “monstrous wickedness; outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness.” Its secondary meaning as “immensity” or “vastness of size” has edged its way into dictionaries chiefly because of the word’s consistent and persistent misapplication. A more accurate term for “immensity; vastness in size” is “enormousness.” Style books including Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage have all emphasized the misuse of enormity. While we understand the less accurate secondary meaning will remain in common speech and some writing, in order to avoid ambiguity we will reinforce the main definition within formal writing.

  2. Phil W says:

    Thanks for your great blog, which has saved my butt several times. I thought I understood your post about the use of [sic], until the pop quiz threw me, twice. The post says “[sic] should not be used to emphasize what is obvious or expected; a writer should refrain from it if an error is clear within its context.” So I answered “no” when asked whether [sic] should be used after “vice-a-versa” and “Irregardless.” Though they make me wince, each of those non-words seemed perfectly “clear within its context.” Please explain, and thanks in advance.

    • The distinction concerning clarity in context lies in whether the error was intentional or not (or perceived as such). For example, the article cites the phrase “lotto pay” in a slogan. In this context, we as writers or editors can typically identify that phrase as word play (i.e., an obvious or intentional error). On the other hand, if quoted material includes a phrase such as “vice-a-versa,” it’s possible the speaker was unaware of the error. We would then insert [sic] to identify that we recognized the error even if the speaker did not.

      Thank you for your comment; we have updated the article to make this distinction more clear.

  3. Jon Williams says:

    Wow, this article is sic man! Ok, excellent presentation.

  4. Robert W Mitchell says:

    Sometimes I use [sic] to emphasize that the writer being quoted is illiterate. Am I bad?

    • says:

      The Associated Press Stylebook advises “Do not use (sic) to show that quoted material or person’s words include a misspelling, incorrect grammar or peculiar usage. … Instead, paraphrase if possible.”

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