If the word footnote ignites memories of coffee-fueled all-night writing sessions in cramped dorm rooms, never fear, we’re not going to talk about college term papers today. Instead, we’re going to explore the following three questions from the perspectives of formal (nonacademic) documents and business writing: What are footnotes? Where should footnotes appear in formal documents? And where should footnotes appear in general business writing? We’ll close with three extra tips on writing footnotes.
What Are Footnotes?
Footnotes are supplementary pieces of information that support your writing. If you’re following The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style, which is the best style guide for general business content), supplementary information includes works cited, suggestions for further research, commentary, quotations, copyright statements, or a combination of any of the above.1
If you’re following the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) or MLA style from the Modern Language Association, works cited typically appear in the reference list or bibliography; so, footnotes are reserved for commentary, suggestions for further research, or copyright statements.2
Work cited example based on Chicago style:
1. Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (New York: Gotham Books, 2003), 89.
2. This study excluded Groups D and E; therefore, it should not be considered exhaustive.
Suggestion for further research example:
3. Visit www.erinwrightwriting.com for more information about ampersands.
Where Should Footnotes Appear in Formal Documents?
Footnotes usually appear at the bottom of the page. Each footnote is preceded by a number that also appears as a superscript after the corresponding material on that page. Chicago style allows you to use symbols, such as the asterisk or the dagger, instead of numbers if you only have a few footnotes.3
If you’re following APA style or MLA style, footnotes can appear at the foot of the page or all together at the end of the document.4 (In Chicago style and MLA style, notes placed at the end of articles, chapters, or books are called endnotes.5) Unlike Chicago style, APA style and MLA style don’t recommend using symbols as footnote identifiers.6
Where Should Footnotes Appear in General Business Writing?
If you’re publishing less formal content online, such as a blog post or a how-to article, there’s no rule that says you can’t put footnotes at the end of individual sections. I like to call them “floating footnotes” because they float where they’re most needed instead of languishing at the end of a page or document.
In fact, floating footnotes can be more helpful than traditional footnotes for viewers who only need to read a few sections of your content. Floating footnotes can also benefit viewers who don’t want to scroll all the way to the end of a long webpage or ebook.
However, reserve floating footnotes for longer pieces so your content doesn’t become disjointed. If your blog post or article is only a couple of screen lengths, tradition footnotes should work just fine. You can see an example of a floating footnote in the second-to-last section of Three Ways to Add Currency Symbols in Microsoft Word.
Three Tips for Writing Footnotes
1. If your supplementary information is longer than a paragraph, consider using an appendix instead of a footnote.
2. If you’re following Chicago style and your footnotes are taking up too much page space, consider using endnotes instead.
3. Avoid unnecessary footnotes: if they don’t cite your sources or improve your readers’ understanding of the topic, they’re probably not necessary.
Check out these related posts on the differences between bibliographies and reference pages and how to insert footnotes and endnotes in Microsoft Word.
And of course, here are my footnotes for this blog post:
1. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 14.19, 14.37–40.
2. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2020), 2.13; MLA Handbook, 9th ed. (New York; Modern Language Association, 2021), 7.1-7.2.
3. The Chicago Manual of Style, 14.25.
4. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2.13; MLA Handbook, 7.3.
5. The Chicago Manual of Style, 14.43; MLA Handbook, 7.3.
6. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2.13; MLA Handbook, 7.3.
Updated January 25, 2022