Neil Armstrong and the meaning of brackets in quotes

While hanging out with my buddies waiting for Curiosity to land last night, we talked about the radio delay, the delay for high res photos, and then on to whether there was a delay and what it was like for Apollo 11. I hit up wikipedia and saw this quote:

one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind

I came to the site today ask, and to my surprise today’s question was about the same quote! But not the same question.

What is up with these brackets? Is there any designated use for them? I’ve seen them used in many (perhaps subtly) different ways.

  • For words that may have been misheard (above)
  • “Fixing” grammatical errors “Because we [aren’t] suppose to”
  • Clarification of pronouns “He [Cecil] ain’t so bad”

The problem is, except in the last case, it leaves you wondering what the person actually said.


The consensus is Armstrong didn’t say the “a” in a man. So it shouldn’t be included in the quote, but is added in brackets for clarity.
Frankly the quote doesn’t even make any sense without the “a.”

Meh. You understood the sentiment, so it made sense.

What I recall from listening to the recording is a very long pause after the first phrase, which I always interpreted to be Armstrong thinking, “Shit! I muffed it!”

Given the circumstances, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

I listened to the landing, and there is no doubt in my mind that Armstrong said:

“One small step for man”.

One definition of the word “man” is “mankind”, “the human race”.

I guess political correctness has routed that definition from the classroom and
from general use to the extent that people born after ~1969 are unfamiliar with it.

I don’t know what Mr. Armstrong meant to say or what he thought he said, but I think “One small step for man” is perfect. He could have said “for mankind” or “for a man”, but that would not have played nearly so well.

If I had just landed on the moon I’d have been too thunderstruck even to say “Wow” or “Awesome!”

Give the guy a break!

Well, having listened to it or not, I am guilty of missing the point.
I do recall the quote as cited, but did not think of the redundancy.

Armstrong intended to say, “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

What was heard was, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Many people have added the bracketed [a] to honor Armstrong’s intention.

My question is about the brackets though, not the quote. Is there a proper use for them? They seem to be used any time people don’t know what else to use. The pronoun use especially would probably be better replaced with parentheses.

Generically, one uses brackets whenever one performs an edit on a quotation to add words to the quote. Stuff in brackets is added or changed (i.e. capitalization on what was not capitalized). Thus, brackets can mean several things, as you mention. All are from the same source - “I changed something from the original”.

The purpose in all cases is to clarify the original use.

Actually, what is more difficult is the use of ellipses (…). Throwing those around really should get one questioning what the original said.

Neil Armstrong’s full quote is:

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Given that he went on to say mankind in the second clause, it’s clear he had no problem with that word. But, as many point out, the actual verbage “for man” is exactly the same as “for mankind”. Thus, as the quote is heard, the quote loses it’s poetic symmetry and instead is goofy.

Neil claims he said “That’s one small step for a man…” If you go with that version, then the poetic symmetry is revealed.

pplepic, do you agree that the first “man” in the quote is intended to refer to Armstrong himself, not humanity as a whole? If we agree that that was what Armstrong intended, then it seems clear to me that “a man” is the right way to say it.

Neil Armstrong is awesome and whether he misspoke doesn’t matter a bit, but since the question was asked we might as well answer it as accurately as possible.

Examined in great detail here:

MODERATOR NOTE #1 - There were two different threads on the same topic, which I have merged into one thread.

MODERATOR NOTE #2 - I have added a link to the column in question in the first post. For readers who are unaware, we like to include such a link in the first post of a thread about a column. Helps keep us on the same page, saves search time, etc.

Brackets are used to identify words the writer has changed or added to the original. Legal writing is scrupulous about it, and also about the number of dots in internal versus terminal ellipses. In many editions of the Bible, italics are used in the same way.

I use brackets frequently when quoting/shortening portions of emails, because I learned email etiquette in the dim distant days of listservs, when it was considered good manners to preserve bandwidth. I continue because I still think it’s good manners to preserve the reader’s attention span.

Given the level of communication technology in 1969, I always assumed that Armstrong probably *did *say “a man,” but it somehow got dropped out of what was received due to a technical glitch.

Hell, even now in 2012, talking to my girlfriend a mile away on a cell phone, words get dropped. Let’s cut the guy a break.

I’ve always maintained that Armstrong flubbed his line.

Agreed that, if he said “a”, it wasn’t stuttering or mumbling, it was likely a radio glitch that dropped it. I don’t think he probably did, though.

More importantly, I don’t think it’s such a blatant and embarrassing error. The vast majority of people have never questioned it and no one has any trouble understanding what he meant.