Following the definition published by Merriam-Webster, "footnote is a note with added information that is placed below the text on a printed page."
When used properly, footnotes can be an extremely helpful tool for both author and reader to supplement the argument and supporting evidence of an essay or article.
If this is your first time using footnotes, you may be learning these steps for an English class or for a new job. Don't forget to always check with your professor, editor, Brand Manager or other lead to make sure you understand the expectations for formatting footnotes and using them in your specific assignment.
You are probably most familiar with using footnotes when quoting or paraphrasing an opinion, concept or comment from another author and media source. This provides the original author and publisher credit for the work and allows the reader to research the original source to read more. These are often called bibliographic notes.
In fact, one of the foundational elements of Foucault's work was that every interpretation of reality is an assertion of power. 1
Footnotes can also be used to provide additional information about a referenced concept that some readers might not be familiar with, but to go into more detail on in the main body of the essay would distract from the overall argument. These are called explanatory notes or content notes.
The Postmodernism advent was partially due to a new pessimistic outlook that began to take the place of the blind optimism of the previous generation. No longer were people buying into the idea that the world was getting better and better.2 This "new pessimism" fostered an open-mindedness when it came to art.
Footnotes are also employed in creative writing, like fiction and poetry, as literary devices to enhance the content, structure or style of the piece. David Foster Wallace is an author who is particularly well-known for his use of footnotes in his works, such as in the novel Infinite Jest.
Example (taken directly from Infinite Jest):
The Ennet House 3 was nearby, that dealt directly with Anonymous organizations of this sort, and was wondering if maybe he could have--or borrow and Xerox and promptly return by either email or fax or First Class mail, whichever they might prefer--some sort of relevant meeting schedule.
Before choosing whether or not you use footnotes or endnotes in your essay, you must first review the preferences of your professor, editor, or company/brand. Their provided guidelines will help you make the decision (or, more likely, you'll find out that they have already made the decision for you!)
If you are left to make the decision on your own, consider the following:
If your piece will only include a few short, brief notes, then using endnotes could be appropriate. However, if your essay contains more than one note per page and/or has notes that are longer than a brief phrase, use footnotes to avoid distracting and confusing your reader. Knowing how to format a footnote is also crucial, especially in academic writing. That's why below you'll find some more prompts on formatting footnotes in MLA and APA styles.
Generally speaking, MLA discourages the use of footnotes unless they are used to provide bibliographic notes and the occasional content note (as long as it's not too distracting!). You should designate footnotes by using superscript, arabic numbers after the punctuation of the final word of the phrase to which the note refers. Microsoft Word and other software programs will automatically take you to the bottom of the page or a separate page to write the corresponding footnote.
APA, which is most often used to document articles in the social sciences, has different names for the two types of footnotes that it identifies: content notes (the same as content or explanatory notes) and copyright notes (same as bibliographic notes). Both types of footnotes are formatted in-text the same way.
"Online Writing Lab." Purdue OWL. Purdue University, n.d. Web. 16 June 2015.
"Using Notes with Parenthetical Documentation." MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. sec. 6.5, 230-32.
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