A footnote is a notation at the bottom of the page in a printed document. Footnotes are usually presented in smaller print than the dominant text, and they are used for a variety of purposes. The “foot” part refers to the fact that the notation is located in the “footer” or “bottom” of the document. A similar concept is the endnote, a note which is provided at the end of a document, rather than at the bottom of a specific page.
When a text has these notes, they are indicated with various symbols or superscript numbers. The asterisk symbol, *, is a common symbol, but a variety of symbols including daggers, †, may be used. In a text with a lot of notes, numbers are usually used to indicate them, so the reader can keep track of what is going on. Endnotes are typically indicated with numbers, to make it easier for people to look them up.
Different style manuals have different rules about using footnotes, and it is important to follow style guidelines when submitting material for publication. Because the practice can get very complicated, most style guidelines devote at least a few pages to the procedure. Some people avoid using the notes at all, while others relish them because they provide a great degree of freedom when they are used well.
One common reason for footnoting is to provide citations. Whenever an author quotes someone else or discusses someone else's ideas, he or she is expected to provide a citation, both to provide credit and to allow readers to examine the source for themselves. Some style guidelines like citations inline in the text, as in “(Myers, 2006)”, while others prefer to see citations footnoted. Footnoting citations allows readers to focus on the text, consulting the citation whenever they feel like it, rather than being forced to read it.
Footnotes really flourish in the sense of additional commentary. Authors may use a note to provide comments or extra information, especially if that information digresses. Academics in particular cannot resist sharing interesting tidbits with their readers, but these tidbits may not be strictly relevant to the text at hand. Using these notes allows authors to talk about matters which may be of interest without detracting from the primary focus of the text. Sometimes, the notes take up more room on the page than the actual text.
It is not uncommon to see footnotes used to make humorous asides. For people who enjoy academic jokes, these notes are often a great source for amusing comments and side notes which would not be appropriate in the central text. Footnotes may also be used to recount anecdotes or to provide a subtle commentary on the source or topic being discussed.
How To Cite Footnotes
When it comes to citations, the way that you approach recording a footnote depends on the type of style guide you are using. If you are writing an assignment for a teacher or an article for an academic journal, both will typically give you a specific style guide to follow. Popular guides include APA, MLA, and Chicago style.
When To Use Footnotes
APA, or American Psychological Association, is the primary guide used in colleges and academia. Its primary function relates to the social science field, but it has become the default choice for many other fields as well. In APA style, footnotes are only used to offer a clarifying explanation, rather than to cite information. APA requires citations to be parenthetical, so their footnotes look different than some other guides. No citation information is needed, so if you need to add a footnote to give the reader more information, you can simply list the note down below with the additional information immediately following the footnote marker.
When creating the citation, the number should be in superscript following a piece of punctuation. Its corresponding note should be located on the bottom of the page following the same superscript number. It should be noted that APA does not typically recommend footnotes because they can be more expensive to print, so you should only use them if you feel the additional notes are crucial to your piece of writing.
The Modern Language Association created the MLA style guide, which is widely used in both secondary and post-secondary educational settings. Unlike APA, MLA does not encourage the use of explanatory footnotes, but it is allowed if necessary. The MLA guide primarily uses footnotes to direct readers to additional source reading that may be helpful or interesting to them, known as bibliographical notes. If you are telling readers they may want to check out multiple other books that pertain to a certain topic you are discussing, but you don't want to clog up the page and take the reader out of the writing, that would be a good place to use a footnote.
A citation would look similar to APA, with superscript numbers following the punctuation in a phrase or clause. Keeping the notes at the end of the sentence is recommended, but if you have multiple notes in one sentence, you may have to break them up after each clause.
Chicago style is the designated guide for history writing. It utilizes footnotes and endnotes heavily, as they are the primary source of citation for the work through the notes and bibliography system. The system requires authors to keep track of each source on the page it is referenced through a footnote, and to then compile an entire bibliography at the end of the text. Citations are needed if you are using a direct quote, as well as if you are paraphrasing material.
When citing a source for the first time, you must include all proper information. The author's name should be inverted so that their last name is listed first. Next, the title of the source should be written in italics, followed by the publishing information in parentheses. Lastly, the page of text that is being referenced should be included. The first time you list a source, all of the above information is necessary; however, subsequent listings can simply include the author's last name, the shortened title, and the page number.
What Is the Difference Between a Footnote and an Endnote?
The main difference between footnotes and endnotes is the location in the piece of writing where they can be found. Footnotes are located at the bottom of the page that they are referenced on, so readers are encouraged to read them as they progress throughout the work. If you are using explanatory notes, footnotes may be more helpful because they keep information confined to the page where it is relevant. Endnotes are listed at the very end of the work, sometimes taking the place of a bibliography entirely. They may be the better choice for notes that are purely citations, to keep the page free of publication clutter that might be distracting for your reader.
It may be up to you as the author which you would prefer to use between the two, or you may be assigned by your teacher or publisher. Either way, the citation information that is included in the note does not change if you are using one or the other. Both are a proper way to ensure that the information you are reusing is being credited to the right sources and would not be considered plagiarism.