A footnote is a piece of text which, for some reason, cannot be accommodated within the main body of the document and which is therefore placed elsewhere. It is usual, and preferable, to place footnotes at the bottom of the page on which they are referred to, but this usually requires a great deal of fiddling about, unless you are lucky enough to have a word processor which arranges footnotes automatically. It is easier for the writer to put all the footnotes at the end of the document, but of course this makes life harder for the reader, who is obliged to do a lot of fumbling about in order to find the footnotes. Exception: If you are preparing a work for publication, then you must put all the footnotes on separate pages at the end of your document; such notes are called endnotes. But don't use endnotes in a document which will pass directly from your hands to the reader.

There are two main rules in the use of footnotes. First:

Do not use a footnote if you can possibly avoid it.

The overuse of footnotes will make your work laborious to read: a reader who finds herself constantly directed away from your text to consult footnotes will lose the thread of your writing and possibly lose her place altogether. The use of avoidable footnotes is self-indulgent and sloppy, and it is contemptuous of the reader. Academic writers in particular are often guilty of this kind of objectionable behaviour. Far too often I have wearily chased up a footnote only to find something like this at the end of the trail:

7This term is used in the sense of Halliday (1968). or
23As is commonly assumed. or even

(The last example provides nothing but the birth and death dates of someone mentioned in the text.) Such trivial asides could easily be incorporated into the main text inside parentheses, and that's where they should be, if they're going to be present at all.

But think whether such information needs to be present at all. If the term being footnoted in the first of these examples is so obscure, why not merely explain it? What is your reader supposed to do if she doesn't recognize it — put your book down, go off to the library and find Halliday (1968), and read that book from cover to cover? You should make every effort to make your work a pleasure to read. Reading it should not be an epic struggle on the part of your hapless reader.

If you decide that a footnote is unavoidable, then the standard procedure is to flag it in the text with a superscript numeral at the point at which it is relevant:

Let us consider the case of Algerian immigrants in Marseille, for whom a substantial number of case studies6 are now available.

At the bottom of the page (one hopes), the reader will find your footnote:

6I am indebted to Sylvette Vaucluse for kindly providing me with unpublished data from her own research, and to Sylvette Vaucluse and Jacqueline Labéguerie for illuminating discussions of these case studies. They are not to be held responsible for the use I make of the work here.

If you can't produce superscript numerals, then the alternative is to place the footnote numeral inside of parentheses or, preferably, square brackets:

Let us consider the case of Algerian immigrants in Marseille, for whom a substantial number of case studies[6] are now available.

The second rule about footnotes is also a prohibition:

Do not use a footnote merely to introduce a reference to work which you are citing.

If your footnotes are very few in number (and one hopes that they are), it is permissible to use symbols rather than numerals to flag them. The symbol most commonly used for this purpose is the asterisk (*):

Let us consider the case of Algerian immigrants in Marseille, for whom a substantial number of case studies* are now available.

I do not recommend this, for two reasons. First, if you happen to be writing in a specialist field in which the asterisk is used for other purposes (as it is in mathematics and linguistics), then your reader may not immediately recognize what the asterisk is doing. Second, if you want to put more than one footnote on a page, you have a problem. Printed books sometimes trot out a startling array of further doodahs to mark additional footnotes, such as the dagger, or obelisk, or obelus () and the double dagger, or diesis (). Using these squiggles will at least force you to put your footnotes at the bottom of the page, but it is far better to use numerals.

A footnote should be as brief as possible, and here alone it is preferable to make liberal use of readily identifiable abbreviations, including those Latin abbreviations to which I objected so strongly earlier.

Footnotes at the bottom of the page must be set off in some way from the main text. The common way of doing this is to put the footnotes in a smaller typeface. If you can't do this, a horizontal line is permissible.

If a footnote is too long to fit at the bottom of its page, it may be continued at the bottom of the next page. When this starts to happen to you, though, you may well begin to wonder whether that footnote is really essential after all.1

1Don't use footnotes if you can avoid them.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

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