Restoring the Dignity of the Footnote

Douglas Groothuis

Footnotes have been my friends since I went to college long ago. Before then, I toyed with a few books, but did no serious reading or writing. I wrote for my high school newspaper, but it was footnote-free. Writing in college required genuine research and official documentation. Enter the footnote. My professors assigned acres of papers, most of which needed documentation. The typewriter was the only instrument available then, but I pounded them out.

When I began writing academically, I had to truly master the art of the footnote, and I came to respect its dignity. My editors were fussier than my professors, which meant learning style guides and knowing when a footnote was needed and what it should include. Footnotes give writing an intellectual weight and force. It is in my philosophical blood that persuasive writing requires rational argument and supporting documentation. Thus, the footnote has been my friendly companion for decades. I read the footnotes in books and articles and prefer them to endnotes, which require more effort to find. (I see no point to “reading notes” that only vaguely wave at page numbers associated with phrases. Enumerated notes are more precise.)

Footnotes may be marred by ordinary miscues related to spelling, spacing, dates, pages, punctuation, and names. My own publications have had their share of these pests. I was amused to find a footnote in a book that credited me with writing an article I never wrote. I was tempted to add it to my CV, but I contacted the bemused author instead, who extracted me from the next edition. These factual errors seem to be popping up more frequently.

But worse, there is a shift in the handling of footnotes, which reveals a lack of respect for the institution of the footnote. I will speak first of student papers—all professors have their stories—and then of academic writing. It is worse when the mistakes get published.

Students may get creative with footnotes. (This is a nice way to say sloppy.) Creativity is fine, but it should be reserved for the content of the paper, not for the documentation. My institution uses the Turabian style guide, which is the literary absolute for my students. The student record for errors in one footnote is seven. This went beyond creative and into the rarified realm of superlative sloppiness. In my comments, I noted the previous record of six, and I circled every mistake. I hope he got my point: Do not mess with the footnote. On the happy side, one of my students properly placed three footnotes in one sentence. Another paper documented an argument of Blaise Pascal so thoroughly that I kept a copy of his paper to cite as needed (and with his permission). But on to footnote errors in professional publications, which are less excusable than student errors.

Footnotes should cite original sources. In quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, one should cite the primary work. If one finds a useable quote in a book that cites Nietzsche, then one should track down the original source. Only rarely ought one write, “as quoted in,” since that betrays an ignorance of the original source that might undermine credibility. Relying on someone else’s primary research is not advisable, except when two conditions obtain: (1) the original source cannot be uncovered and (2) you have good reason to trust the secondary source. Years ago, my deceased wife, who wrote on women’s issues, tried to track down the source of a quote claiming that a church counsel ruled that women had no souls. Try as she might, she could not find the original source, despite all the vague references. She concluded that every secondary reference was spurious (as she suspected).

Another footnote infraction is (please excuse the phrase) pandemic—omitting the original publication date. Knowing when a book was first published allows the reader to place the book into the narrative of the author’s work and into the general intellectual climate of its time. It is important to know that C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain (a philosophical work) well before A Grief Observed (a lament over the death of his wife, Joy Davidman). While Lewis offered somewhat dry philosophical answers in The Problem of Pain (1940), he recounts in A Grief Observed (1961) his personal encounter with emotional suffering. The proper Turabian footnote for The Problem of Pain in a modern edition is:

1. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; reprint ed., New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

Then there is the infamous missing footnote. Academic writing that quotes an author needs a footnote, unless the quote is common knowledge. However, it is better to over-document than to under-document, since the latter can turn into plagiarism—an academic crime that may cripple or end an academic career. Nevertheless, much common knowledge is not true. You can find bogus quotes from the Internet all too easily—especially related to Einstein—but consider those attributed to Blaise Pascal. Many quote the quotable Pascal as writing this: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every person that only God can fill.” That is a thought-provoking statement, but he never wrote it. Rather, it is a decent paraphrase of a longer passage from Pensées.

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him…since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.

Now to the hamstrung footnote without page numbers. A recent book I reviewed footnoted a four-volume work to reinforce a few sentences of text. Surely some specific pages of those four volumes could have been cited. This footnote may as well say, “Well, it’s in there somewhere. Go fishing for yourself.” Thomas Sowell calls this the “pseudo-footnote,” since it lacks the specifics that a footnote owes us. The author is simply being lazy.

However, general references are acceptable if they cite an entire work on a broad subject. For example:

1. For more on the philosophy of technology, see Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Knopf, 1992).

Traditionally, a footnote refers to written sources, usually published. However, occasionally a footnote will cite an unpublished manuscript, a dissertation, or a master’s thesis. But recently, I have seen too many footnotes to YouTube or other videos. If the video presents an expert speaking on his or her expertise, this is forgivable (once in a while). Still, published sources, given their legitimacy and provenance, should have pride of place.

My concerns about the dignity and fate of the footnote could be belabored more pedantically, which might be depressing. But take heart, academics. The footnote, when given its due dignity, can be a strong advocate for integrity in writing. A footnote grounds an assertion in a written authority. Hence, I suggest we respect our footnote friends and help our students befriend them also. They serve well in the pursuit of truth. Long live the institution of the footnote!


Douglas Groothuis is a Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of The Soul in Cyberspace.

Image: Thom Milkovic, Public Domain

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