Tuesday, 11 August 2009


This is from Jan Nattier, via H-Buddhism:

There are many other uses of footnotes as well.  The following is a brief
selection, from a handout I prepared for graduate students at Indiana
University in 1998:


1.    Pre-emptive strike (self-defense)

   Here you use the footnote to guess what objections to your line of
argument the reader might bring up, and to refute or defuse them.  ("Yes, I
thought of that, but I don't think it holds up and here's why.")

2.    Information service (bibliography)

   Offer leads to the reader on what interesting and useful literature
exists concerning the subject you're discussing ("Here's an interesting item
you might want to read . . .").

   note:  this type of footnote also shows that you've read the relevant
literature yourself, and that your reasoning and line of argument is
therefore based on a solid awareness of what other people (and primary
sources) have to say on the subject.

3.    Sidelights for specialists

   Here you can put information that would not be of interest to your main
target audience (incidentally:  a key part of writing a good research paper
or book is to be sure who your audience is!), but would be of great interest
to certain readers.  It's better to put such material into a footnote than
in the main text, because it may be so specialized that it will confuse your
main readers, and may also disrupt the flow of the argument.

4.    Musings and expressions of uncertainty

   It's often best to put such statements as "It's difficult to determine .
. ." and "I have no idea why . . . " into footnotes.  It shows you've
thought about these difficult issues, found them intractable, and would be
interested to hear what other people come up with.  (If you put such
statements into the main text, it can have the subliminal effect of
weakening the power of your argument.)

5.    Requests for work by others

   For instance, you can point out that no critical edition of
such-and-such a text has been made, or that there is no useful study in any
western language of the life and times of so-and-so, etc.  Such comments can
even inspire someone to write a Ph.D. thesis on the subject!

6.    And finally, the standard one:  sources

   This one, quite simply, is to let the reader know where you got your
information (or quotation) on a specific point.  The format of the footnote
should make it as easy as possible for the reader to go and find the book or
article himself/herself.

Note:  there are different schools of thought about whether it is or is not
acceptable to put footnote numbers in mid-sentence (I think it's fine,
sometimes even essential; some scholars think it's irritating).  The basic
rule is:  make sure the footnote number is placed right next to the item to
which it refers.  Do not follow the practice (apparently advocated by copy
editors at some presses) of putting footnote numbers only at the end of a
paragraph, even if the note refers to the material in the first sentence!

   * On the history of the genre see Anthony Grafton, *The Footnote: A
Curious History* (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).  For a
how-to-do-it guide see Frank A. Burkle-Young and Sandra R. Maley, *The Art
of the Footnote* (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996).
One last comment:  as Richard Bowring has already mentioned, end-notes are
intensely irritating to specialists (and, in line with what I have already
written above, may not be appropriate even for more general readers).  For
my part, I avoid publishing with any press that is not willing to set the
notes at the bottom of the page.