How do I use footnotes properly?
September 17, 2008 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Footnote experts/writers: Please help me decide the best way to use footnotes in my document.

I'm writing a document (it's a guide, not an academic paper) that contains a number of footnotes - 11, in a 34-page document.

What I'm facing now is an almost-finished document with a really odd system of footnoting. Some pages have numbered footnotes, some use symbols (asterisks). What I want to do is get rid of the numbers, and use asterisks on each page to refer to the footnotes on that page only (as in, I'll start over with * on each page there is a footnote).

Is there any reason I shouldn't do this? Are there rules of footnoting that I need to know? I googled use of footnotes, but what I've found is academic advice to students re: using footnotes or endnotes. That's not helpful to me. I'm definitely using footnotes, and it isn't academic, so I'm not tied to a style guide.

I know I'm making this more complicated than it should be, but I'd like to get it right. I've also read this document so many times that I'm starting to question every single part of it. Suggestions?
posted by Badmichelle to Writing & Language (6 answers total)
Best answer: The Chicago Manual of Style (15th Ed.) recommends (16.35): "Where only a handful of footnotes appear in an entire book, or perhaps, just one in an article, symbols may be used instead of numbers. Usually an asterisk is enough, but if more than one note is needed on the same page, the sequence is * † ‡ §. Because the sequence of symbols starts over for each page, this system may not be appropriate for (some) electronic works."

So there's justification if you're looking for it. I'm an editor and what you propose sounds fine to me.
posted by mattbucher at 10:19 AM on September 17, 2008

I don't understand you asterisk system. What if someone wanted to refer to a specific footnote? They would need to give the page number? Numbers seem easier. Especially, since most word processors can manage the footnotes for you.

My suggestion is to use numbers. You could pick a style guide that you like and use that. It will make it easy for your reader to understand the information found in your footnotes. A quick guide to Chicago Style can be found here (N denotes foot- or endnotes)
posted by Gor-ella at 10:24 AM on September 17, 2008

In a 34 page document, a reference to a footnote should come with a page reference anyway, Gor-ella. Do you really want to sift through a 34 page document looking for footnote #7?

Asterisks are fine.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:29 AM on September 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I have justification and the Chicago Manual of Style to mention when all the people (so many people) who are working on this question my reasoning.
posted by Badmichelle at 10:42 AM on September 17, 2008

If your notes contain only bibliographic information (i.e., nothing substantive), you can run them into the text, put them at the bottom of the page, or put them at the end.

If your notes are substantive, but are digressions, think twice about using them at all. If they're necessary material, you should work them into the text. If they're just for amusement, leave them out. They interrupt the reader, and it's distracting to jump from the text to the note and back. Worse, by the time the reader gets back to the text, s/he has lost the thread and must reread the entire paragraph to get going again.

Microsoft Word will automatically handle the * † ‡ § system, but for a general guide, it's confusing to non-scholars. I'd advise using numbers.
posted by KRS at 12:13 PM on September 17, 2008

Two principles at work here. One is consistency within a document. You're on top of that. The other is consistency across documents from the same source, a/k/a "house style". Try to come up with a solution that resembles everything else from your place as much as possible.

That said, I wonder (blindly) if some of these footnotes might be better characterized as sidebars, if that fits the document's audience.
posted by dhartung at 4:03 PM on September 17, 2008

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