What is a Footnote?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A footnote is a notation at the bottom of the page in a printed document. Footnotes are usually presented in smaller print than the dominant text, and they are used for a variety of purposes. The “foot” part refers to the fact that the notation is located in the “footer” or “bottom” of the document. A similar concept is the endnote, a note which is provided at the end of a document, rather than at the bottom of a specific page.

Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.
Footnotes are always located on the bottom on the page and in smaller text.

When a text has these notes, they are indicated with various symbols or superscript numbers. The asterisk symbol, *, is a common symbol, but a variety of symbols including daggers, †, may be used. In a text with a lot of notes, numbers are usually used to indicate them, so the reader can keep track of what is going on. Endnotes are typically indicated with numbers, to make it easier for people to look them up.

Authors may use a footnote to provide comments or extra information.
Authors may use a footnote to provide comments or extra information.

Different style manuals have different rules about using footnotes, and it is important to follow style guidelines when submitting material for publication. Because the practice can get very complicated, most style guidelines devote at least a few pages to the procedure. Some people avoid using the notes at all, while others relish them because they provide a great degree of freedom when they are used well.

One common reason for footnoting is to provide citations. Whenever an author quotes someone else or discusses someone else's ideas, he or she is expected to provide a citation, both to provide credit and to allow readers to examine the source for themselves. Some style guidelines like citations inline in the text, as in “(Myers, 2006)”, while others prefer to see citations footnoted. Footnoting citations allows readers to focus on the text, consulting the citation whenever they feel like it, rather than being forced to read it.

Footnotes really flourish in the sense of additional commentary. Authors may use a note to provide comments or extra information, especially if that information digresses. Academics in particular cannot resist sharing interesting tidbits with their readers, but these tidbits may not be strictly relevant to the text at hand. Using these notes allows authors to talk about matters which may be of interest without detracting from the primary focus of the text. Sometimes, the notes take up more room on the page than the actual text.

It is not uncommon to see footnotes used to make humorous asides. For people who enjoy academic jokes, these notes are often a great source for amusing comments and side notes which would not be appropriate in the central text. Footnotes may also be used to recount anecdotes or to provide a subtle commentary on the source or topic being discussed.

The asterisk symbol may be used to denote footnotes.
The asterisk symbol may be used to denote footnotes.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


When using a footnote, do you still put the quotation you're using in the text and use the footnote to give details of the book you used?


@youbiKan-- I don't think footnotes make a piece of writing more valid. I just enjoy being able to read more on a topic I'm interested in.

Someone who has researched a topic has more knowledge about books and articles written on that topic. I know that this information is also provided in the sources list. But footnotes give the source exactly where that information is shared in the paper. So it's a lot easier to use in my opinion.


@turkay1-- That's a good question.

From my experience, it depends on the instructor. I wish there was a clear-cut rule about footnote formats but there isn't. Some instructors tolerate footnote citations and others don't.

My personal view is that it's safer to do citations at the ends of sentences and leave footnotes for clarifications. One of my favorite professors in grad school used to say that footnotes are meant for information that doesn't fit into the main idea of the paper, but is still worth mentioning somewhere.

It can also be used to reference works and authors. If someone reads something in your paper and would like to know more about it, he can find that information in the footnotes. This way, you're not creating a distraction in your paper, but still making that information available.


Are we allowed to use footnote citation in grad school? I used to do this all the time in college but I'm not so sure if that's okay at this level.


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Unfortunately, people use footnotes much less often in high school and college writing than they used to. The problem with this is that many people now don't know the difference between footnotes, which are at the bottom of every page in a document, and endnotes, which are only at the very end of a document. Both have their uses, and it's important to know the difference.

I especially like footnotes when reading a book, because that means the author can give me the sources and extra commentary as I read, while I like endnotes when reading something shorter like an article.


I always appreciate research and texts that have footnotes attached. It is this kind of reference that a reader can use to assure them of receiving valid data or concepts.

Just because a footnote exists doesn't mean that the research is automatically deemed valid. It simply allows for the reader to make a judgment call on the quality of the source information but as well they can see out the source and identify further information they are attempting to gather.

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