Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Footnoting Tradition

The decision of where in the flow of an essay to place detailed citations and tangential comments entails a number of considerations. Footnotes allow for easy reference by the reader, easily going back and forth between text and note. However, lengthy footnotes clutter the page and make reading cumbersome. Even brief footnotes can be a little distracting.

Endnotes free the text from clutter and allow for quick review of sources cited. They also remove the brief distraction of citations on the page but add the significant distraction of flipping to the back of the book. It is difficult to read an essay straight through because of all the flipping. This can be made a little easier if the endnotes are labeled in a header as referring to specific pages in the book. But it doesn't remove the temptation to leave the page.

My personal preference is for footnotes because there is a significant benefit in terms of readability. However, my recommendation in general is that if the notes are long, put them in endnotes. If they are short, put them in footnotes. It is very confusing and inelegant to mix footnotes and endnotes within an essay (or book). Therefore, even a few long notes necessitate using endnotes.

It is noteworthy that the journal Tradition recently changed from endnotes to footnotes. It seems the switchover happened in the Summer 2009 issue (link). I greatly applaud this change. In my opinion, the reading experience is enhanced and the journal benefits from this refocus. While this is entirely a matter of taste, I find that even R. J. David Bleich's articles -- which often have lengthy notes -- benefit from the new format.

It seems to me that a journal of Tradition's nature requires notes because articles frequently addressed complex topics that cover over a millennium of literature. However, its large non-academic audience does not need or want long notes.

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