A rant on footnotes

My feelings on footnotes are undoubtedly colored by my experience in 10th grade. That year we had to write a research paper and it had to have footnotes typed at the bottom of each page.

I thought that was crazy. Putting footnotes at the bottom of the page is not so bad if you’re setting type, but doing it on a typewriter is madness.

I mean, really! If you’re setting type, one step is the galley proof. At that stage, you have the body text set, and then you have the footnote set in type right after it—easy enough for the typesetter. The footnote only gets moved to the bottom of the page when you go to page proofs—at the stage when you know exactly how long both the text and the footnote have turned out to be.

Doing the same thing with a typewriter is really hard. (Impossible, really, even if you’re willing to type out two “final” drafts, because line and page lengths are non-determinant when typed by a human on a typewriter.) In any case, much too hard to be worth doing.

Typewriter are a good reason to do endnotes instead. Endnotes are inferior to footnotes, but on a typewriter they’re so much easier to do the tradeoff is worth it.

People were coming around to that point of view even back when I was in high school. But not quickly enough. I had to type my research paper with footnotes.

I am no longer bitter about this.

What I am bitter about, is that momentum for the move to endnotes continued to gather, and eventually carried the day. Which is also crazy, because the victory over footnotes finally arrived just when it was no longer needed—when word processors made footnotes trivially easy.

I mean, really! Footnotes are much better than endnotes, because they put the reference or the digression right there where you can see it. They were just hard to do with a typewriter.

If it’s just a reference, I don’t really care—footnotes, endnotes, or a parenthetical with author’s name, date, and page number. But if there’s any additional commentary in the footnote, it should be at the foot of the page. I can’t count how many books I’ve read where I didn’t notice until 40 pages in that all the really good stuff was buried in the endnotes. (Just as bad is cramming the digressions into the text.)

Why is this so hard? If you’re typing a text, you should switch to endnotes. If you’re not typing the text, you should use footnotes. If that’s not what your style manual says, you need a better style manual. Geez.

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One Thought on “A rant on footnotes

  1. Dude! Footnotes are only a good idea if you’re authoring on dead trees. Hyperlinks are where it’s at, man.

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