On Footnotes: Thoughts, Rants, and Peeves

By May 28, 2015

Since I lead a very exciting life, foot/endnotes are something I think about fairly frequently: How many? How long? How detailed? Foot or end? To excerpt or merely to cite? And so on. In an attempt to clarify my thinking, I have sketched a few thoughts, rants, and peeves.

Footnotes for Blogging

For blog posts like I do here at JI, I tend to use many footnotes and make them pretty long. My thinking is that?

(1) There are no space constraints—the page just keeps scrolling down, so I can put as much info as I think useful (or fun or interesting or whatever: it?s just blogging). However, just because the page keeps going doesn?t mean the readers do, and

(2) More-than-just-citation footnotes can make the main post more concise and transparent and thus more likely to be read and appreciated. As a reader, I prefer highly-structured writing, with main points, sub-points, evidences, digressions, etc, clearly labeled for easy navigation; I assume some of my readers have similar preferences. So, dear reader, it?s all about you, except when it?s about me, and then

(3) Footnotes are a lazy-writing short-cut. If I make the main post too long, (even more) people won?t read it, but clear, concise writing takes time and energy, which I don?t want to spend too much of on blogging. So? when I can?t find the nerve to kill my darlings I just throw them in the basement.

(4) Long footnotes can improve searchability. In blogging, I frequently give excerpts in footnotes rather than just citations. When people put phrases from those documents into a search-engine, I want them to land on my post. My ego is kept alive by the mouse clicks of dozens of internet readers and those readers are rewarded by not having to rediscover or re-transcribe what I?ve already typed up. It?s a win-win. I also imagine that a non-trivial percentage of the people who read the sort of posts I write are trawling for sources. I want it to be easy for them.

(5) Didactic, conversational, and pedantic footnotes fit my personality. For me, a big part of the process of writing is getting myself out of the way of the topic. Footnotes can provide another, less-formal valence for author/reader interaction. (Be advised that if you sit next to me in meatspace during a presentation you might get an earful of ?footnotes.?)

Footnotes for Formal Academic Writing

In formal scholarly writing most of the above don?t hold, and, in my experience as a reader, voluminous footnotes often (but not always) indicate a lack of analysis or crafting. Unless it says ?Annotated Bibliography? in the title, please don?t give me an annotated bibliography.

Citation Length

Make citations as short as possible, but no shorter. I think one of the main purposes of the footnote is defeated if the reference is too vague. Sometimes the reference is to whole sections of a source and sometimes it is to a specific line: you should tell me which. In general, I want directions all the way to the sections/lines/images you reference.

  • If it?s in a box with folders, tell me which folder and which page(s) in that folder.
  • If it?s a microfilmed source, tell me which roll in the set and where on that particular roll.
  • If it?s a newspaper, give me page and column numbers, and if the print is small, tell me where in the column.
  • Etc.

I burn a bunch of my archive time trying to find information for which I supposedly have a citation. You were already there and it would have taken you only a few seconds longer and maybe a few more pages in the published text to include detailed citations; what would have been your seconds turned into my minutes and hours of clock-time, eye-strain, and emotional energy on archive trips when all of those are expensive.

So, dear readers, let?s have some rants and peeves and counter-rants and counter-peeves on footnotes. Thoughts are also welcome.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Go, and do ye likewise.

    Comment by D. Martin — May 28, 2015 @ 9:10 am

  2. So much 3. It seems every other comment my advisor makes is either “that doesn’t belong in a footnote. Put it in the text” or “nice, but not really relevant. Kill it.” Also, on 5: my footnote of choice is a snarky one. I do edit those out before I let anyone see my work.

    Comment by Saskia — May 28, 2015 @ 9:27 am

  3. And no cryptic footnotes! I ran into one in a master’s thesis this last year that read “5. Supra, 1,n.1” There is apparently some logic to it, but the author’s use of it only muddled the citation. I would much rather have had a short citation that actually pointed to the source material, and not to another footnote.

    Comment by kevinf — May 28, 2015 @ 9:57 am

  4. Amen, Edje. I’m working on helping someone turn a dissertation into a book and I’ve spend scores of hours on correcting and clarifying footnotes and the bibliography.

    I can’t wait to bring this post into the classroom. Thanks!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 28, 2015 @ 11:11 am

  5. If one is going to reference a book in a note, one should make sure one has actually read the book and isn’t just attempting to show off.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 28, 2015 @ 11:14 am

  6. ^^ That’s a tough standard to apply to everything. Some or much of the source may not be relevant. Sometimes all I have time for is reading the intro and conclusion.

    Comment by Ben S — May 28, 2015 @ 11:26 am

  7. First, I recognize that I am a compulsive footnoter. That said, having spent large portions of my life trying to track down archival references, I am an emphatic champion of the complete footnote. Every time I see something like, “Letter, Brigham Young Papers” I die a little. Preferably, it should be:

    [Author], [Item], [Date], [Collection], [Call Number, Box and Folder, Page if applicable], [Medium], [Location].

    For example:

    Willard Young, letter to Zina D. Young, October 18, 1887, Portland OR, Zina Card Brown family collection 1806-1972, MS 4780, Box 2, folder 9, file 2, digital images of holograph, LDS Church History Library.

    Medium is particularly important as there has been a habit of using transcripts of various qualities in Mormon history.

    As a bad example, a group of us recently discussed adoption, and I pointed to Juanita Brooks’ comments in her Lee bio (p. 73) and n50 in 1:178 of her Stout volume. In these two places she lays out some pretty hefty claims that have erroneously influence skads of authors, all without substantiation. Things like this have influenced me so that if I feel like I am making a claim I want some evidence cited.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 28, 2015 @ 11:35 am

  8. Also important distinctions: holograph, manuscript, original typescript, typescript. Also: microfilm, photocopy, digital images.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 28, 2015 @ 11:38 am

  9. Great comments. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 28, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

  10. Also, please make sure you’re familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style.

    Ben S., point taken. I think it depends on what from a book an author’s citing. If you’re citing something you’ve read, then great. However, if you’re referring to the book in a “See also” sort of way, then, yes, I think an author should be familiar with what he/she is asking readers to “See also.” I’ve seen notes I’m certain the author hasn’t read but would like readers to think he/she has read.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 28, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

  11. Quinn, anyone?

    Comment by Terry H — May 29, 2015 @ 5:32 am

  12. Seriously, I especially appreciate footnotes. They’re vital for helping me check sources. You can overdo it at times (see #11), but for the most part, if they’re too minimal, they don’t engage. I like it best when the footnote engages with other scholars (pro or con) in a small argument that is a sidelight to the main theme of the article.

    I HATE endnotes. Just give me footnotes every time.

    Comment by Terry H — May 29, 2015 @ 5:34 am

  13. Number three should be like a law or something. Good writing takes work. Don’t just dump stuff in the footnotes. Digression: what is with the giant block quotes, Mormon historians? Block quotes everywhere! Just stop it! Unless you’re doing a documentary history, keep ’em to a minimum.

    I’ll dissent on citing boxes and folders. Collections change and repositories adjust their cataloguing styles. I think as long as one provides enough information to identify the source (i.e., Orson Pratt to Brigham Young, May 5, 1850, Brigham Young Collection, CHL) it’s not at all unreasonable to expect scholars to hunt it down on their own. If there’s extenuating circumstances, they should be noted, such as if a source cited at the CHL is restricted and the author was given special permission to see it, or if an item is uncatalogued.

    Finally, if a source is difficult to locate, writers should indicate if they have a photocopy or typescript so that others might reach out to them for a copy, provided it doesn’t violate any confidences or agreements with repositories or individuals that have provided sources.

    Comment by John Hatch — May 29, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  14. Thanks, Natalie. I need to get Scrivener but I’m not sure where to start. Maybe I’ll get the Dummies guide as well!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 29, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

  15. Thanks a lot for the guilt trip, Edje.

    Comment by WVS — May 29, 2015 @ 10:17 pm

  16. Further to Gary’s #5: If you cite a primary source, you should dang well have looked at that source, and not only its use in a secondary source. An author — I won’t call him a historian — whose work I am taking apart now, cites things he hasn’t seen. It’s easy to identify what secondary sources he did see, when he reproduces ellipses and errors as they appear in those secondary sources. That’s a form of plagiarism, I think.

    Comment by Ardis — May 29, 2015 @ 11:14 pm

  17. While you’re at this, read Grafton’s curious history of the footnote. I love that stuff.

    Comment by BHodges — June 3, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

  18. Ardis, that bugs me in what I read too. Even if you’re referring to the primary source through a secondary source at least say, “as quoted in ….” so we know you’re not reading it directly. Although as you say, you should read it directly. Especially in these days of fairly easy access to obscure sources.

    Comment by Clark — June 4, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

  19. Terry (11) I think Quinn was channeling Nibley. (I don’t mean that flippantly – I think there’s a real influence there) Overall though I don’t think Quinn’s that bad. Since I had both out I compared Magic World View with Brooke’s Refiners Fire and they really don’t differ that much from what I can see.

    To me the bigger issue is just referring to a footnote when there’s a whole logic of inference from the source left out. Sometimes we get a whole slew of references but not the argument that ties them together to make the point that the main prose assumes comes out of those references. But really that’s less an issue of footnotes than it is explanation.

    If a reference doesn’t itself argue persuasively for how you’re using the reference then I think we at a minimum need a few sentences explaining the use. More than that and probably the argument should be moved into the main body text. (All IMO – I know not everyone shares my biases which are influenced by primarily reading non-history type arguments and footnotes)

    Comment by Clark — June 4, 2015 @ 1:59 pm


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