Footnotes Versus Endnotes

My favorite magazine, The Watchtower, has a series of study articles in the July issue that uses endnotes rather than the footnotes it has used almost if not entirely exclusively in my forty-three years of reading the journal. A friend, knowing I’m an editor, asked if I know what the difference is between footnotes and endnotes, and why endnotes are used for this series of articles.

To state the obvious, footnotes go at the bottom (the foot) of pages, and endnotes go at the ends of articles, chapters, or a whole book. Note, too, that to call an endnote a footnote (or vice versa) is wrong. Last Sunday, when we studied the first article from this magazine, the reader kept calling them footnotes, even though the word Endnotes appears over them, grouped together at the end of each article. Bzzzt! Wrong!

Functionally, footnotes and endnotes accomplish the same purpose. Which kind to use is a publisher’s style decision. Each has advantages over the other, and each has disadvantages.

Generally, notes are a means of moving material that is parenthetical yet worthy of inclusion out of the main discourse. Often, readers who skip them will not lose anything essential to the main arguments being presented.

Footnotes are convenient. A reader can just drop his eyes down, read, and go back — or not. But footnotes are usually in a smaller type size, which makes them harder to read. Endnotes stand a danger of being skipped because they require flipping to another page and back. The way we study these articles, there is zero danger of their being skipped, whatever style is used.

Sometimes notes contain nothing more than references to outside sources. At other times they add interesting supplementary material, information that is worth reading, but that would be awkward to integrate into the main narrative.

But footnotes add clutter to a page, and too many of them are annoying to some readers and even intimidating to others who may think that only scholarly works that are beyond their ability to comprehend use such apparatus.

Which style to use is up to the publisher. Most journals, textbooks, and scientific, medical, and legal publishers have meticulous requirements for their publications that must be followed without variation.

Rarely, a publication will use both footnotes and endnotes. I’m currently reading FDR, the biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jean Edward Smith, which uses both. The footnotes use asterisks as markers, are few (no more than two on any page), unobtrusive, and contain only supplementary information. I’ve been reading all of them. But there are 154 pages of numbered endnotes, most of them bibliographical references, with occasional minor commentary added. I’ve been skipping those because personally I despise endnotes. (There is also a huge bibliography.) Whereas I don’t speak for the publishers of The Watchtower, I can make an educated guess why the decision was made to switch from the customary footnote style to endnotes in the July 2013 issue.

These articles seem to have a little more than the usual extra material than most others. Also, there are two-page graphical spreads within the first two articles, which might have complicated the layout if they also had to squeeze in one or more footnotes on the bottom.

So different publishers have different requirements, based largely on aesthetic considerations. Each publisher has its own style guide that trumps the various standard style guides used as starting points or fallbacks. And given that prime decision-driving considerations of Watchtower Society publications are readability and accessibility to a worldwide readership, it should come as no surprise when we see things done a little differently once in a while, and that the result is usually delightful.

About Lynn

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