I love a good footnote (1), me. But I know some people loathe them. I just can’t understand this. What’s not to like about a good footnote?
Humanities scholars tend to like a good footnote; some citation styles – many used in the humanities – are footnotes. If you write for a journal that uses one of these styles, then you have no choice but to use them, like it or not. I attribute my predilection for the footnote to an early bit of university training in History.
But it may not be just down to my training. I also just like to know the provenance of an idea. Always have. “Who says ?” and “Why?” are questions that have stuck with me since childhood. I’m interested in the little permutations that are not necessarily part of the main story, but are related to it. Little sub-plots, if you like, in the margin of the main.
Now I know a lot of people don’t like footnotes. I’ve even heard people say that you should never use them. And I’ve heard “no footnotes” said to people in doctoral training courses. (My little inner historian just wants to pound the table, a lot, when I hear it.) The reason usually given is that footnotes are a distraction, and “If you need to say something it ought to be part of the main story”.
However I also want to read a text – and write one – that is not too cluttered up with references, digressions and caveats. I prefer a bit of flow in a paper. I favour an argument that gathers a head of steam and doesn’t get tripped up by minor embellishments.
And I really loathe endnotes. I hate having to shuffle between pages, being forced to go back and forward from the middle to the end of a book or chapter to try to follow up a tempting side alley. I get tired of the endnotes shuffle pretty quickly. I give up the time-consuming to-ing and fro-ing and on the tangential thoughts the writer offers.
But there is point to a footnote. Footnotes are a kind of under-the-car-bonnet writing. They represent the kind of work that makes the paper run smoothly. A well-constructed footnote shows some of the work of scholarship, the work that has been necessary in order to get the paper written.
Footnotes are generally used for:
- Extending the argument – foot notes provide additional information, connect pieces of the text together, referring the reader back and forward in the main text
- Giving background or contextual information – footnotes provide additional explanatory heft through critical historical or theoretical commentary
- Offering further avenues to explore – readers are referred to other texts that provide alternative or different directions.
Sometimes people use footnotes as a way of getting around word limits, but this generally means that the major text is obviously incomplete. Sending important key content to the edges of the paper is not such a smart move.
Helen Sword suggests that footnotes can be a pretentious addition to a paper. That is indeed a risk. It may be a risk you wish to avoid. I like a bit of a risk myself. That’s because I think that a footnote can do something other than the four points I listed above.
I reckon that a good footnote can present the written academic text as a less than neat entity. This is a point that Eric Hayot makes. I’ve recently revisited his book on writing in the humanities and I agree completely with his advocacy of the footnote. A footnote can be a fine thing. Hayot says, and I agree, that the footnote can reveal some of the untidiness of academic thought. In offering dangling threads yet to be addressed, the footnote suggests that academic thinking, research and writing is never quite done. It is always partial. There is always more to do.
And the beauty of the footnote is that reader doesn’t have to engage. They can if they want to. And if they want to and if the footnote is well crafted, a further layer can be added to their reading pleasure.
(1) A post on a footnote wouldn’t be complete without one. So, you know there is an entire book about footnotes and their history? Of course there is – Grafton, Anthony (1997) The footnote. A curious history. Boston MA: Harvard University Press. And actually there’s quite literature about the footnote. Probably even more than one book if truth be told. Google scholar ‘footnote’ and see just how much you get!