What Is a Footnote?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.
Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.

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.

Authors may use a footnote to provide comments or extra information.
Authors may use a footnote to provide comments or extra information.

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.

The asterisk symbol may be used to denote footnotes.
The asterisk symbol may be used to denote footnotes.

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

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.

MLA

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

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

anon935409

When using a footnote, do you still put the quotation you're using in the text and use the footnote to give details of the book you used?

stoneMason

@youbiKan-- I don't think footnotes make a piece of writing more valid. I just enjoy being able to read more on a topic I'm interested in.

Someone who has researched a topic has more knowledge about books and articles written on that topic. I know that this information is also provided in the sources list. But footnotes give the source exactly where that information is shared in the paper. So it's a lot easier to use in my opinion.

burcidi

@turkay1-- That's a good question.

From my experience, it depends on the instructor. I wish there was a clear-cut rule about footnote formats but there isn't. Some instructors tolerate footnote citations and others don't.

My personal view is that it's safer to do citations at the ends of sentences and leave footnotes for clarifications. One of my favorite professors in grad school used to say that footnotes are meant for information that doesn't fit into the main idea of the paper, but is still worth mentioning somewhere.

It can also be used to reference works and authors. If someone reads something in your paper and would like to know more about it, he can find that information in the footnotes. This way, you're not creating a distraction in your paper, but still making that information available.

candyquilt

Are we allowed to use footnote citation in grad school? I used to do this all the time in college but I'm not so sure if that's okay at this level.

anon153219

This site really helped me! I am just learning how to write an essay and it is very helpful! Thank you!

vogueknit17

Unfortunately, people use footnotes much less often in high school and college writing than they used to. The problem with this is that many people now don't know the difference between footnotes, which are at the bottom of every page in a document, and endnotes, which are only at the very end of a document. Both have their uses, and it's important to know the difference.

I especially like footnotes when reading a book, because that means the author can give me the sources and extra commentary as I read, while I like endnotes when reading something shorter like an article.

youbiKan

I always appreciate research and texts that have footnotes attached. It is this kind of reference that a reader can use to assure them of receiving valid data or concepts.

Just because a footnote exists doesn't mean that the research is automatically deemed valid. It simply allows for the reader to make a judgment call on the quality of the source information but as well they can see out the source and identify further information they are attempting to gather.

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    • Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.
      By: naxaso
      Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.
    • Authors may use a footnote to provide comments or extra information.
      By: michaeljung
      Authors may use a footnote to provide comments or extra information.
    • The asterisk symbol may be used to denote footnotes.
      By: mara_lingstad
      The asterisk symbol may be used to denote footnotes.