Footnotes are a reference tool for writers and researchers, allowing them to provide additional information, clarify sources, or share related insights without disrupting the flow of the main text. Footnotes are positioned at the bottom of the page and indicated within the text by a superscript number or symbol. Various academic and professional fields rely on footnotes to maintain the credibility of written work. They are prevalent in citation styles such as Chicago, often used in history and the humanities, and MLA, preferred in literature and some social sciences. Footnotes help maintain the integrity of the narrative while providing the reader with access to the source material for verification or deeper exploration.

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What Is a Footnote?

A footnote, as the name suggests, is a special note or a comment placed at the bottom of a page within a document that provides additional information, clarification, or citation of sources related to the text referenced by a superscript number or symbol appearing in the main body of the document. The purpose of these messages is to explain, elaborate on, or complement the material without cluttering the main content. It helps readers stay on track of the story and just glance at the bottom of the page at a footnote to get more information, if necessary. Therefore, footnotes allow for a cleaner and more readable narrative.

Footnotes come in various forms, primarily categorized based on their purpose: content footnotes and citation footnotes. 

Content footnotes give further details for better understanding or provide context to a statement made in the main text but are not directly linked to a citation. Informational footnotes are valuable in technical documents, encyclopedias, and detailed analytical works where extra information might be helpful for readers who seek deeper understanding or background knowledge about the discussed topic.

Citation footnotes, on the other hand, are implied when the referencing style of the document prefers footnotes for citation instead of in-text citations or endnotes. Bibliographic footnotes make all the citation details accessible without overcrowding the main text. This is particularly useful in disciplines like history and classical studies, where original sources may be extensively analyzed or critiqued. 

Typically, footnotes appear at the bottom of the same page where their corresponding superscript is noted. This placement is very convenient as readers can easily find and refer to the additional information without having to flip through the pages. It maintains a smooth reading experience while providing depth and evidence where needed.

How to Use Footnotes

To use footnotes in your writing effectively, start by determining when a footnote is necessary or when you believe it may be helpful for readers. Generally, any supporting information that is too detailed for the main text but required for deeper understanding or source verification should be noted in a footnote. This includes direct citations, clarifications, and supplemental data.

Once you decide to add a footnote, insert a superscript number at the end of the sentence or clause related to the additional information. This number should follow any punctuation (except a dash) and be placed directly after the last word of the sentence. In your document’s footer, corresponding to each superscript, you’ll detail the footnote. Each footnote should be concise and directly relevant to the referenced text.

For example, consider a statement in an academic paper:

Many historians argue that the event was a turning point in the war.1 

You might use a footnote to cite the sources of this claim or to provide a brief list of historians who support this viewpoint. The footnote might look like this:

How To Do Footnotes

Always start the footnote content flush left at the bottom of the page. If a footnote extends beyond one line, indent the subsequent lines. This formatting helps maintain clarity and improves readability.

Additionally, if you reference the same source multiple times throughout your document, you may use shortened forms of the citation after the first full one, or use “Ibid.” if it’s the immediately preceding citation. This keeps your footnotes focused.

How To Write A Footnote

Writing correct footnotes is a valuable skill and an important part of academic writing. Footnotes allow authors to make their writing more credible by providing additional context, source citations, and relevant commentary. There are several aspects to consider in creating informative and accurate footnotes, including clarity of expression, compliance with a consistent formatting style, and attention to detail in citing sources. 

  1. Clarity: Each footnote should be concise. It’s important to provide thorough information, but it’s equally vital to be brief and to the point. Avoid overly complex sentences and focus on the essential details.
  2. Consistent Formatting: Stick to a consistent formatting style for your footnotes. This includes the font size, indentations, and the spacing of lines. Consistency in formatting helps maintain professionalism and readability.
  3. Use of Signals: Employ standard scholarly signals such as “see,” “cf.,” “compare,” and others to guide the reader on the nature of the citation or comment. For instance, “cf.” (confer) suggests a comparison, while “see” directs the reader to a source that supports your argument.
  4. Language Style: Maintain an academic tone that matches the rest of your document. Avoid colloquial language. Your footnotes should enhance the scholarly quality of your paper.
  5. Reference Accuracy: Double-check your references for accuracy. A footnote with a citation must include all necessary details, such as page numbers, authors’ names, and publication details, formatted according to the appropriate style guide.
  6. Integration with Text: Each footnote should correlate directly with a specific part of the text. This connection should be clear without the reader having to make assumptions about the relevance of the footnote.

How To Do Footnotes

All styles use a similar method for creating footnotes based on their purposes and functionalities that we already mentioned. But there are subtle variations and quirks everywhere, as is typically the case with citation issues.

MLA Style

The Modern Language Association style typically uses parenthetical in-text citations rather than footnotes. However, footnotes can still be used in MLA for supplementary comments, additional references, or explanatory notes that might be too wordy for the main text.

When you do need to use a footnote in MLA style, you would insert a superscript number at the end of the sentence containing the information that requires a footnote. This number corresponds to a footnote at the bottom of the page where you provide the additional information or citation. Footnotes in MLA are mainly used to provide readers with further explanations or to cite sources for quotations and factual statements where in-text citations would disrupt the flow of reading.

Consider a sentence from an academic paper:

“Despite its initial failure, the treaty significantly influenced international policy in subsequent years.”

Corresponding Footnote: At the bottom of the page, you would add:

3. While the treaty’s initial reception was lukewarm, historians like Thompson argue that its long-term impact was profound (Thompson 157).

MLA Style footnote example

Here, the superscript “1” directs the reader to the footnote at the bottom of the page, where further details and a source are provided. This helps keep the main text clean, while still offering a way to access extra information and detailed citations.

APA Style

Similar to MLA, the American Psychological Association (APA) style includes in-text citations. However, footnotes may be used for additional material or private correspondence not included in the reference list. APA footnotes are also used for additional comments that expand on a point made in the text, define advanced terminology or present data. 

For example, you might find a statement in a paper such as:

“The latest research shows a significant decrease in this trend.4

Corresponding Footnote: A corresponding footnote might include:

4. See Smith (2020) for a detailed analysis of the data and trends from the past decade. The study outlines the variables influencing the outcomes.

APA Style footnote example

In this case, the footnote provides additional source information that supports the statement. Unlike a reference list entry, a footnote in APA can provide direct commentary or specific page numbers, contributing to a more detailed or specific discussion.

Chicago Style

This style is the king of footnotes! The Chicago Manual of Style is widely used in the humanities and historical journals and is distinctive for its extensive use of footnotes for citation purposes. Chicago-style footnotes provide a comprehensive method for citing sources, enabling detailed commentary and source information directly accessible at the bottom of the page. Footnotes here are used for citing sources and providing additional comments or clarifications related to the text. This style is favored for its precision in citation and the ease with which readers can access source details.

Example in text: Consider a statement in a historical analysis:

“President Lincoln’s decisions during the Civil War profoundly shaped the outcome of the conflict.”

Corresponding Footnote: At the bottom of the page, the footnote would appear as:

Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 234.

Chicago Style footnote example


How should footnotes be written?

Footnotes should be written clearly and concisely. They should provide the necessary information or citation without disrupting the flow of the main text. When writing a footnote, include a superscript number in the text that corresponds to a note at the bottom of the page. The content of the footnote should be directly relevant to the superscript reference, and it should be formatted according to the specific citation style being used (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago).

How do you format a footnote?

Footnotes are formatted slightly differently depending on the citation style:

  • MLA: Use footnotes for supplementary information or personal commentary, not typically for citations.
  • APA: Similar to MLA, use footnotes for extra information or personal communications.
  • Chicago: Use footnotes extensively for citations, formatting them with full citation details and a period at the end.

Generally, footnotes should start with the corresponding superscript number followed by the text of the footnote. This text should be single-spaced, with a first-line indent, and the same font size as the main text or slightly smaller.

What should a footnote look like?

A typical footnote contains the superscript number that corresponds to the reference in the text, followed by the detailed note or citation. The footnote itself should be at the bottom of the page, separated from the main body of text by a short line or space. It should be short and directly relevant to the reference number.

How do you write the first footnote?

  1. Insert a superscript number at the end of the sentence that requires additional information, clarification, or source citation. This number should ideally follow any punctuation (except dashes).
  2. Create the corresponding footnote at the bottom of the page. The footnote itself begins with the same superscript number, followed by the content of the note. Ensure it’s clearly separated from the main text, typically by a horizontal line across the column.
  3. Format the footnote content according to the guidelines of the citation style you are using. Generally, this includes the source’s author, title, and publication details for citations, or explanatory text for additional information.

What is the easiest footnote format?

The easiest footnote format involves the use of a simple numeric system, as seen in the Chicago Manual of Style. This system is straightforward:

  • Numeric indicators: Use consecutive superscript numbers in the text to indicate footnotes.
  • Footnote details: At the bottom of the page, the same number appears in superscript followed by the footnote content. This content could be as simple as a full citation or a brief explanatory note.

Chicago’s numeric system is straightforward because it consistently uses numbers for footnotes (as opposed to letters or symbols), which makes it easy to track and manage, especially in documents with many references.

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