When we read a text, it’s a direct one-way conversation: the text speaks to the reader. When we read footnotes, though, a third party enters that conversation—the author, commenting on the text. Footnotes complicate the relationship between author, text, and reader—in some fascinating ways.
Like all conversations, this one is a socially situated experience. The author’s intervening voice tells us what kind of conversation we’re having. Is the author speaking to us as a friend, a confidant, a teacher, a performance artist, an interpreter? Are we reading in a classroom, on the subway, in a leather armchair at the Yale Club? Are the author’s notes a discreet aside, a whispered anecdote, a dialogue with the words on the page?
Sometimes the citational note is a quiet reminder of the author’s research and erudition, a resource to be mined. In the discursive note, though, it becomes a side conversation—the author peering over the reader’s shoulder at the page, whispering in their ear, anticipating objections, cracking jokes, or tossing out fascinating anecdotes that didn’t quite fit into the text.
Sometimes it’s a cocktail-party conversation going on in the background. Sometimes the author is just showing off, jerking us around from page to page, toying—amusingly or maddeningly—with our attentions.
Sometimes it’s pedagogical, as many scholarly footnotes are, situating the author’s writing in the field of play. Sometimes it’s defensive or neurotic. Sometimes the author is across the room with their feet up, flicking spitballs at us as we read. And sometimes (as in Jordy Rosenberg’s recent novel Confessions of the Fox), an entire story unfolds in the footnotes.
Whether they’re discursive, citational, or performative, how we understand the purpose of footnotes—and endnotes—affects how we treat them as writers and as editors. Most importantly, it affects how readers relate to the text.
Notes on discourse
The purpose of the footnote varies, of course, with the purpose of the text. In scholarly work, the usual distinction made is between discursive and citational footnotes—are the notes merely a long list of sources, or do they also include comments from the author? The former is best tucked out of the way in endnotes at the back of the book (or, in an edited collection, at the end of the chapter—helpful for readers approaching the book for a particular selection).
Discursive footnotes, on the other hand, are often more usefully placed at the bottom of the page, the better to catch the reader’s eye and draw them into the author’s commentary on the text. This does have its drawbacks, however: authors who tend to write long notes expounding on the details of one point or another may find they have little room left on the page for the actual body text, and notes that go on and on for pages are likely to confuse readers. (The editors of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power were wise to put Mintz’s long and colorful notes in the back, for this reason.)
Mixing discursive and citational footnotes can be a frustrating business, depending on the balance between them. On the one hand, it’s distracting and somewhat silly to draw readers’ eyes away from the text to a long list of Smith 1975s on every page for the sake of a few digressions per chapter.
On the other hand, though, there’s no better way to convince readers not to bother with your digressive footnotes than to sandwich them between citations in the endnotes, so that they have to keep a finger in the back and remember that the next number worth flipping back for is note 64. This makes for an altogether disjointed and frustrating reading experience.
A solution that can often help is to separate discursive and citational notes, with the former set as footnotes and the latter as endnotes. I worked with Verso Books to make this distinction in the forthcoming Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac. The result is to focus readers’ attention on the most salient and informative notes while allowing enough space for thorough documentation.
Another option is to use parenthetical author-date citations, as is standard in APA and MLA citation styles. While this does tend to clutter the text, it’s often much easier for the reader’s eye to skip over parenthetical citations than to dart back and forth to footnotes on a different part of the page. This method ensures that the reader is only asked to dart around for discursive notes.
Most scholarly authors use footnotes and endnotes not only to cite sources but to clarify how these sources relate to one another and to the text at hand. This conversation is the kind held at academic conferences. For example, in Fortunes of Feminism, philosopher Nancy Fraser uses footnotes to conduct a dialogue with other scholars on gender and care work. The result is a book that informs in its own right as well as a set of footnotes that effectively comprise an annotated bibliography: they offer great utility to students and researchers as a curated guide to threads of discussion and argument in Fraser’s fields.
Scholarly footnotes can, however, take many other shapes: anticipating potential objections to an argument, clarifying editorial choices (such as gendered pronouns), or, in the case of journal articles, providing a convenient spot for acknowledgments.
When a scholar writes for a general audience, the notes can be a liminal space between professionals and amateurs. Biologist Sandra Steingraber, for instance, does this in her beautifully written Living Downstream, which combines the author’s personal experience with cancer and her investigative work on environmental causes of cancer. Rather than using note numbers, Steingraber’s endnotes are keyed to page numbers and phrases in the text. Discursive and citational notes are mixed, but the discursive notes are unlikely to be of interest to the non-scientist reader. Their purpose, in this case, is to make a research case to specialist readers—as well as to demonstrate to the non-scientists that there is indeed a wealth of evidence to back up the author’s argument.
The advent of ebooks has, of course, changed the terrain. Clickable note numbers make it easy to view notes without all that page-flipping—though they do demand a deliberate click, robbing the reader of the opportunity for casual perusal. Since citations no longer appear in such books as long lists, this change has also led the Chicago Manual of Style, in its seventeenth edition (2017), to retire the abbreviation ibid., formerly used to mean that the note was citing the same source as the previous note.
Then there are intertextual commentaries. These are an ancient practice—the Talmud comes to mind—but today (at least outside religious contexts) they are mostly used to provide context and clarification when publishing historical and/or translated texts, usually alongside or prefaced with analysis or other original material.
Todd Chretien’s annotated edition of Lenin’s State and Revolution, for example, uses footnotes to explain to the 2018 reader Lenin’s references to various 1917 political figures, to Marx and Engels and other political writers, and to literature and ancient philosophy. The resulting editor–author dialogue helps render legible a work that was very much intended as an of-the-moment polemic.
This nonfiction technique is exported to fiction, too, often with fascinating results. Max Brooks’s World War Z uses footnotes within a documentary-style fictional text, building its world through the suggestion of a large body of work on the events of a recent zombie war. John Feffer’s Splinterlands series combines this near-future world-building with a historian’s intertextual notes to hint at connections within the fictional world. Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox goes even further, combining a pseudo-historical fictional narrative with annotations by a fictional (but real-world) literature scholar and comments from that character’s (also fictional) editor for a multilayered, suspenseful narrative.
On the margins
The intertextual approach works for more contemporary texts, too: in the book Hamilton: The Revolution, musical-theater powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda annotates his own libretto with historical context, backstage anecdotes, and a deep dive into his hip-hop and theater influences. Notably, the Hamilton book sets its footnotes not at the foot of the page but in the side margins.
Marginal notes have the advantage of drawing the reader’s eye—the casual browser flips through pages and looks mostly at the outside edges, so having them right there, surrounded by white spaces, allows them to stand out. They often appear in books with particularly elegant designs: Caspar Henderson’s lush The Book of Barely Imagined Beings uses them on nearly every page, linked to the text not by numbers but by rendered the relevant text in gray and placing the footnote near it on the page.
The real pioneer of the marginal footnote, though, is the British science historian and TV host James Burke, whose 1987 Connections: Alternative History of Technology adapted Burke’s ten-part documentary series by using marginal footnotes to connect nodes of information to other notes within the same text, in a sort of proto-hypertext.
The footnote as translator
Another important function of the footnote is its place in translated texts. Here the author’s intervention is that of an interpreter whispering into your earpiece, noting customs and cultural mores of which readers might not be aware and offering insight into word choices.
In the Penguin Classics edition of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World, translated from Bengali into English by the author’s nephew, Surendranath Tagore, on-page footnotes supply (presumably Western and non-Hindu) readers with background on many of the text’s mythological and cultural references: Who are the sixty thousand sons of Sagar? What is the significance of the song “Bande Mataram”? An additional set of notes provided by the publisher resides in the back of the book, keyed to pages but without note numbers. These further explain and contextualize terms (shakti, Swadeshi) and literary references (to the French writer Amiel, the Sanskrit poet Jayadeva, and others, as well as Hindu mythology).
Should it stay or should it go?
As an editor, my job is to help authors get their messages across and keep their readers engaged with the text. Since the nature of notes is to interrupt the reading experience, I generally advise authors to use them judiciously.
“Murder your darlings” is an old chestnut in writing instruction—it’s what writers repeat to themselves when they realize (or are told) that a line or paragraph they’re quite attached to just won’t fit into the final text, often because it’s tangential or for reasons of space. Their response is often to move the offending bit of writing into a footnote. This can work, particularly with especially colorful or interesting anecdotes, but more than a few of these and the text will be just as cluttered as it was before. It’s a bit like cleaning your house by shoving things into closets rather than paring down your possessions.
Long block quotes, in particular, often get moved into the footnotes—as though the writer doesn’t trust the citation and feels the need to prove the relevance of a certain text. The key question here is: is this quote crucial? If it is, it might be better placed in the main text (or at least the most important lines of it); if it’s not crucial, why not simply direct the reader to the source?
Another common error is over-citation, especially by students and younger scholars eager to prove that absolutely everything in their work is properly sourced. That’s an admirable goal, but it is not necessary to cite the same source twice in one sentence, or to stud a paragraph with note numbers that lead only to a long string of ibids. If you’re quoting page 40 of Twitty 2017 repeatedly throughout a paragraph, even if the quotes are broken up into phrases within your own sentences, it’s fine to cite it once at the end of that paragraph. In general, it’s also best to keep notes—especially citational ones—at the ends of sentences. Drawing the reader away from a sentence, especially repeatedly, makes it difficult to take in what that sentence actually says.
The ramifications of inquiry
In 1946, the cultural historian Jacques Barzun reviewed H.L. Mencken’s masterwork The American Language in The Atlantic. “His footnotes,” Barzun proclaimed, “are as good as his text, and one finds in him that whimsical excess of information which shows a man superior to his system and amused at the ramifications of inquiry.”
This is, perhaps, the ultimate footnote compliment. The ideal set of footnotes, whatever its purpose, forms a sort of superstructure to the text—a scaffolding on which the author sits peering into the windows, entertaining and informing in ways that enrich and deepen the reading experience.
Image credit: Endnotes from Inderpal Grewal’s Saving the Security State
 I’m looking at you, David Foster Wallace.
 Terry Pratchett, for example. Or Terry Eagleton.
 Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) gives half or even three-quarters of many of its pages over to footnotes.
 This phenomenon led theologian Jeffrey Staley to joke, “I plan someday to write a scholarly article consisting of a single sentence and a twenty-page footnote” (Reading with a Passion, London: Bloomsbury, 2002).
 With, perhaps, fewer instances of “This is more of a comment than a question…”
 In 2016, biologist David Tamayo used an acknowledgments footnote in a journal article to propose marriage to his partner of ten years (“Food Regime Modulates Physiological Processes Underlying Size Differentiation in Juvenile Intertidal Mussels Mytilus galloprovincialis,” Marine Biology 163(6), June 2016). She said yes.
 CMOS 17, section 14.34. Ibid is short for the Latin ibidem, meaning “in the same place.” Its retirement means that young readers encountering their first footnoted works will perhaps no longer confuse Ibid with Ovid, as I did back in the day. Legal authors using Bluebook style, however, continue to confound casual readers with op. cit., supra, and the like.
 Full disclosure: I copyedited this one, too. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, edited by Todd Chretien (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
 Some stylistic leeway is of course granted in fiction and poetry, but asking the reader to move away from your main text is still best done thoughtfully.