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What is a Footnote?

Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.
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  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2014
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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” in “footnote” 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 footnotes, they are indicated with various symbols or superscript numbers. The asterisk symbol, *, is a common symbol for footnotes, but a variety of symbols including daggers, †, may be used. In a text with a lot of footnotes, numbers are usually used to indicate footnotes, so that 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 footnoting can get very complicated, most style guidelines devote at least a few pages to the footnote. Some people avoid using footnotes at all, while others relish footnotes, because footnotes provide a great degree of freedom when they are used well.

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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 footnote 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 a footnote allows authors to talk about matters which may be of interest without detracting from the primary focus of the text. Sometimes, the footnotes 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, footnotes 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.

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anon935409
Post 14

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
Post 12

@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
Post 11

@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
Post 10

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
Post 3

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

vogueknit17
Post 2

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
Post 1

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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