Should You Use Footnotes or Endnotes?

By Ali Hale

One of our readers, Billy Green, wrote to ask:

Could you enlighten some of us old folks about the proper use of footnotes? Below is what I wrote to the publisher:

I am a firm believer in footnotes printed on the same page where the asterisk is printed. Nowadays in many books which are published, footnotes are sometimes printed at the end of a chapter and other times can rarely be found at all.

What are footnotes and endnotes?

Sometimes, an asterisk or a superscript number appears against a phrase or sentence in a piece of text, referring to a corresponding note. When these notes appear in their own section at the end of a chapter (or sometimes the end of a whole book), they are called endnotes. Notes at the bottom (foot) of the page are called footnotes.

If you’re still unsure:

  • Here’s an example of what footnotes look like (notice they’re on the same page as the text to which they refer).
  • And here’s an example of what endnotes look like (notice they’re on a separate page from the text to which they refer).

Are there any rules about using footnotes and endnotes?

I agree that it is frustrating to have to flip to the end of a chapter or even the end of a whole book in order to read the notes. There aren’t any general rules about whether footnotes or endnotes should be used, though, and this is up to individual editors and publishers.

I suspect the use of endnotes is becoming more and more common in order to keep typesetting costs down. If a footnote is added or deleted, many pages may have to be redone (since the spacing of the main body of text will change), whereas if an endnote is changed, only a page or two will need resetting.

It’s also not uncommon for footnotes to be accidentally omitted in printing. My hardback copy of Jasper Fforde’s latest Thursday Next novel, First Among Sequels which was supposed to use footnotes for humorous effect, had none. It included a slip of paper with the relevant footnotes on and the apology:

We at Fforde towers would like to apologise for this oversight, and even though I’d like to claim it’s something to do with an attempt to reduce the Stupidity Surplus, it isn’t. It’s a balls-up of the highest magnitude for which I apologise profusely.

I’d have preferred endnotes to the absent footnotes, in that situation – though at least I could use the slip as a bookmark …

If you’re writing an academic essay, consult your institution’s style guidelines to find out whether you should use footnotes or endnotes. There may be no preference, or you may find that footnotes are requested (they’re easier for the person reading – and probably marking – your essay, and it’s best not to alienate them!)

Otherwise, I would suggest using footnotes if you have a small number of references. If you have many long notes, you may find that they are best included at the end of the document – otherwise the pages can look very cluttered.

Ultimately, though, there are no general rules, and the choice between footnotes and endnotes comes down to your individual preference or your organisation’s style guide.

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6 Responses to “Should You Use Footnotes or Endnotes?”

  • Neo

    DEAR DWT,

    This was very enlightening. Thank you. I would like you to post on APA/ MLA formatting. There is so much confusion inthis regard. So, please post some information on APA/MLA formatting with a checklist in either case under all possible combinations like website/multiple authors. journal/ newspaper etc…

    thanks

    Neo

  • Norina

    Footnotes are so much easier to refer to than are Endnotes. I rarely check the Endnotes while reading because, frankly, I am a klutz, and I will lose my place while trying to find the original page. Yes, of course I could use a book mark while reading, but it is so very annoying. Nine out of ten times I don’t read the Endnotes, so I am probably missing a lot of information that could clarify the text.
    Oh well, reading is interrupted no matter what notes are used, but at least with Footnotes I will have a better understanding of the text, and I won’t be fumbling to find my place between the pages.

  • Dick

    As a reader, I find imy preference depends on the substantive content of the notes.

    Where the note is simply a reference to the source or sources which form the authoriuty of the statement (common in, say, historical works), an end note is fine. Once I realixe that they are simply sources, I’m happy to have them out of the way and available only when I really want to check out the nature of the authority.

    But when the note is an explanation or an elaboration of the statement made in the text, or an aside that the writer wants to include, but does not want to disrupt the important flow of the paragaph, a footnote is essential.

  • Mikael Høilund

    Dick hit the nail square in the kisser right there. Endnotes are for references, footnotes are for generally relevant notes.

    Right on. 😀

  • Jan

    Dick makes some good points, but I disagree about using footnotes for statement elaboration. I find it very annoying when the flow of a paragraph is interrupted by descriptive footnotes. Without reading the footnote, you can’t really be sure if the information it contains is important enough to read it. This means that a footnote will ALWAYS interrupt the reading flow of the book or paper (especially if the reader is curious by nature). This is very annoying. It should not be up to the reader to make a decision about what is important or not. The author writes his book for a given target audience and should be able to decide how much detail to include in the book’s main text. It’s his job to make a selection, don’t defer that responsibility to the reader!

    I’m all for using endnotes for source references.

  • donna

    What’s up with David Foster Wallace?

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