Monday, May 12, 2008

What are footnotes and endnotes?

Sometimes, an asterisk or a superscript number appears against a phrase or sentence in a piece of text, referring to a corresponding note. When these notes appear in their own section at the end of a chapter (or sometimes the end of a whole book), they are called endnotes. Notes at the bottom (foot) of the page are called footnotes.

If you’re still unsure:
  • Here’s an example of what footnotes look like (notice they’re on the same page as the text to which they refer).
  • And here’s an example of what endnotes look like (notice they’re on a separate page from the text to which they refer).
Are there any rules about using footnotes and endnotes?

I agree that it is frustrating to have to flip to the end of a chapter or even the end of a whole book in order to read the notes. There aren’t any general rules about whether footnotes or endnotes should be used, though, and this is up to individual editors and publishers.

I suspect the use of endnotes is becoming more and more common in order to keep typesetting costs down. If a footnote is added or deleted, many pages may have to be redone (since the spacing of the main body of text will change), whereas if an endnote is changed, only a page or two will need resetting.

It’s also not uncommon for footnotes to be accidentally omitted in printing. My hardback copy of Jasper Fforde’s latest Thursday Next novel, First Among Sequels which was supposed to use footnotes for humorous effect, had none. It included a slip of paper with the relevant footnotes on and the apology:

We at Fforde towers would like to apologise for this oversight, and even though I’d like to claim it’s something to do with an attempt to reduce the Stupidity Surplus, it isn’t. It’s a balls-up of the highest magnitude for which I apologise profusely.

I’d have preferred endnotes to the absent footnotes, in that situation – though at least I could use the slip as a bookmark …

If you’re writing an academic essay, consult your institution’s style guidelines to find out whether you should use footnotes or endnotes. There may be no preference, or you may find that footnotes are requested (they’re easier for the person reading - and probably marking - your essay, and it’s best not to alienate them!)

Otherwise, I would suggest using footnotes if you have a small number of references. If you have many long notes, you may find that they are best included at the end of the document – otherwise the pages can look very cluttered.

Ultimately, though, there are no general rules, and the choice between footnotes and endnotes comes down to your individual preference or your organisation’s style guide.

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