What are Footnotes: a Practical Guide with Illustrative Examples

If you've ever wondered what footnotes are and how they are used in academic writing, you're in the right place. Footnotes are an essential element of academic writing that can help you incorporate important information in your paper. This blog post will delve into the intricacies of using this citation type, providing practical examples and tips to help you navigate it effectively.

Footnotes explained 

Footnotes are a form of citation or additional information ─ you can find them at the very bottom of the page, separated from the main text by a horizontal line. 

Students use them in academic writing, to give extra explanations, comments, or references to sources. You may also benefit from them when giving a personal opinion on some content ─ just ensure it adds value to your paper. 

The purpose of footnotes lies in clarifying information, providing additional details, or offering commentary relevant to the content of the main text. They should not be used for citing sources or including references, as this requires in-text citations and a separate reference list.

Footnotes VS endnotes: what is the difference? 

Both citation forms seem so alike, and it may confuse you where you should use each. Yet, their key difference is their placement within the document, while the purpose remains the same ─ to give supplementary details or insights. 

A footnote is placed right where you cite the reference, at the bottom of the same page, while an endnote is collected at the end of the paper, usually in a separate section. 

Applying footnotes in your text

When writing footnotes, follow these guidelines:

  1. Placement: When writing footnotes, separate them from the main text by a horizontal line. Use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) to number the footnotes consecutively throughout the document. Add footnote numbers at the end of sentence and after punctuation. The only exception of when the clause ends in an em dash, in this case, add a number before it. No space should be placed before the number.
  2. Formatting: Put them in a smaller font size to contrast the main text. Typically, they use a font size of 10 or 11 points. Use Times New Roman or similar Serif font. 
  3. Citation format: If a footnote references a source, follow the same citation format as in the main text. The footnote should be written clearly and concisely if it includes additional information, such as explanations or commentary.

How to properly use footnotes in Word and Google Docs?

You can easily insert notes into your documents using the following steps:

In Microsoft Word:

  1. Place your cursor at the end of the word or phrase in the main text;
  2. Go to the "References" tab in the top menu, click "Insert Footnote" button;
  3. Once words and a superscript number will move to the appropriate section (it happens automatically), type your content in the footnote area.

As for Google Docs, the steps are mostly identical; only the second step differs. When you place your cursor at the end of the word or phrase you need, go to the "Insert" tab in the top menu and select "Footnote." Once you place your text, all you need is to double-check that the formatting of the footnotes follows the specific guidelines of your desired citation style.

Guide to footnotes in APA style 

The explanation of how to write a footnote differs depending on the citation style, so we will cover the most common ones. In APA format, footnotes are typically discouraged in favor of in-text citations. Yet, you may run across two instances when they may be used:

  • Content footnotes: These are used to provide additional information or clarification about a specific point in the text. They should be numbered consecutively throughout the paper, using superscript Arabic numerals. The footnote itself should be placed at the bottom of the page on which the reference is made.
  • Copyright attribution: You may also want to give credit to sources that require copyright attribution, such as figures, tables, or long quotations. In such cases, the footnote should include the copyright information and the permission statement. 

Despite the reason you want to place footnotes in your paper, here is a general guide:

  • Place them at the bottom of the same page where the superscript number appears in the main text.
  • Use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) sequentially to mark footnotes in the order they appear in the main text.
  • Format with a left-aligned, plain-text style, without bullets or special formatting.
  • Begin writing with the corresponding superscript number followed by a space.

Guide to footnotes in Chicago style

The Chicago Manual of Style relies heavily on footnotes, particularly in its notes-bibliography system, which is commonly used in the humanities. The notes-bibliography system allows authors to choose between footnotes or endnotes, with footnotes being the more common choice.

When we are talking about the notes-bibliography system, there are two types of footnotes: short form and long form. The short form is used when a full bibliography is present and only the basic details of the source are included in the footnote. The long form is used when there is not a full bibliography and the first reference to a source must contain a full citation. 

 Check out the key rules:

  • Insert a superscript number in the main text where you want the footnote to appear. You can do this by selecting the number and the superscript formatting option or using the "Insert" menu in your word processing software.
  • Move to the bottom of the same page (or the end of the document, depending on your citation style), add the corresponding number to reference used in the main text followed by a period, and enter the complete citation information for the source. For subsequent citations of the same source, you can use "Ibid." (short for ibidem, meaning "in the same place") followed by the page number(s) for consecutive footnotes. The rules regarding the use of footnotes can differ depending on the field and institution; if unsure, it's better to consult with your instructor.

Guide to footnotes in MLA style 

In MLA (Modern Language Association) style, footnotes are not commonly used ─ they use a parenthetical citation instead. Yet, if you encounter a situation where you need to use footnotes in MLA style, here is a guide: 

  • Place the text at the bottom of the same page where the superscript number appears in the main text.
  • Use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) sequentially to mark footnotes in the order they appear in the text.
  • Begin with the corresponding superscript number followed by a period.

4 tips for writing footnotes 

  1. Be selective. The overuse can distract readers from the main content of the paper ─ use footnotes only when necessary.
  2. Keep footnotes concise. They should be brief and to the point. Avoid lengthy explanations or digressions there, as it can disrupt the main text flow.
  3. Experiment. Footnotes can be a great place to include interesting or intriguing information not directly related to your main argument but adding value to your paper. It could be a fun fact, a relevant anecdote, or a historical context to enhance the reader's understanding.
  4. Engage the reader. Engage your readers by asking thought-provoking questions, providing prompts for further discussion, or inviting them to explore related topics. This can add an interactive and participatory element to your paper.


Footnotes or endnotes: which one to choose? 

It depends on the citation style and personal preference ─ just ensure you place them correctly within the paper or a section. 

What is the purpose of a footnote?

It can add value to your paper by offering supplementary information, clarification, or citations in a document. 

What does a footnote consist of? 

In the case of citations, footnotes must include a relevant information source, such as the author’s last name, title of the work, and page number related to the passage.

Should I place footnotes after the period?

In almost every case, footnotes go after the period at the end of a sentence. The sequence will look next: sentence period, superscript footnote number. The only exception is when you use an em dash; in this case add a footnote before it.

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