Quoting Accurately With Sic

While sic isn’t a word you’ll encounter daily, it is handy to know, as it is frequently used in some professional fields, including law and journalism.

This isn’t the form of sic as used in an attack (Sic ’em). Sic is also used to indicate a sentence includes an error, which sometimes must be reproduced in text, usually for the sake of accuracy.

Writers often use sic when they’re quoting material with spelling or grammatical errors from another source. The use of sic lets the writer off the hook. Those three little letters tell the reader that the writer had nothing to do with the error in question.

For example:

  • The painting was recorded in 1882 as “an antient [sic] painting of two ladies, said to be born and married on the same day, represented with children in their arms” in “the passage leading to the sleeping rooms’ of one of the family’s houses.” (The Christian Science Monitor, 2005)
  • DiGiacomo read from Holden’s jailhouse journal in which he details the shooting of Panek and his own life as an “enforcer” in Las Vegas. “I was born to do this and was making so much money doing it. It payed [sic] to kill.” (CNN, 2005)

Typically sic appears directly after the error and inside square brackets to show that it’s not part of the material. Some writers may also italicize the word or place it in parentheses. Some style guides insist on italicizing sic even when it’s inside square brackets.

Sic comes into English from the Latin word for so or thus. It is an abbreviation for sic erat scriptum (“thus it had been written”).

How is sic used in official documents?

One common use of sic is in quoting historical documents that feature old-fashioned spellings that are no longer in use (as in the first example above). When the word is used in this context, it’s an easy way to point out that the spelling of a particular word has changed over time, but that the traditional spelling is being used here.

Sic is also used when quoting a speaker who has accidentally misspoken. For instance, court reporters may insert sic in square brackets if a witness or attorney clearly uses the wrong word in court, for example saying perpetrator by mistake when the rest of the sentence shows that he clearly meant to say victim or defendant. The use of sic inserted into the transcript of the actual testimony can help clear up confusion later when others are reviewing the case’s written documents.

The use of sic has grown since the mid-1900s, and it can be used today as a comment about the person being quoted. Quoted material is, unsurprisingly, demarcated by the presence of quotation marks, so a reader could be expected to assume that any significant errors come from the source being quoted.

Is there a drawback to using sic?

A writer might place the word sic into such a quote to draw attention to those errors. Because this can be viewed as belittling toward the source quoted, some writers avoid using sic. For instance, they can paraphrase a statement rather than quoting it directly.

For this reason, John E. McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun declared, “We have actively discouraged the use of sic in copy, because it is nearly impossible to use it without looking snotty.”

Whether or not sic is used in this manner, the word can be useful in distinguishing what a writer is saying from their quoted source.

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