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What is a footnote?

What is a footnote? It is a note or comment which, for some reason or other, is not able to be accommodated in the main body of the text and is placed at the bottom of the page on which it applies.
A footnote provides supplementary content or information which is important, useful or interesting. Its purpose is to add to or simplify what is contained in the text. It should never contain complicated, irrelevant or non-essential information. It is used when you want to add a comment to a sentence you have written, and the comment isn’t directly related to what you have written.

Where do you put a footnote?

Footnotes are created on your computer or laptop by inserting a symbol in the most suitable place in the text and reprinting that symbol at the bottom of the page, followed by your comment. Whenever possible, put the footnote at the end of a sentence. It should be placed immediately following the full stop (period) or whatever punctuation mark completes that sentence. If, for clarity’s sake, it needs to be placed in the middle of a sentence, try to put it at the end of the most relevant phrase, after a comma or other punctuation mark. If this can’t be done then put it immediately behind the most relevant word.

Use footnotes only when necessary

The most important rule to remember regarding footnotes is: do not use them unless they are absolutely necessary.
Too many footnotes make your writing laborious to read and make it appear cluttered and disorderly. Never use information that is incorporated in a footnote if it can just as easily be incorporated in the text itself. Academic writers are often guilty of using too many footnotes which could just as easily have been placed in parentheses within the main text. So think carefully before deciding if a footnote is absolutely necessary. Your work should be a pleasure to read – or at least easy to read.

Flagging footnotes

The best way of flagging footnotes is by means of numbers, although if you don’t require too many footnotes it is permissible to use other symbols, such as an asterisk. This is not recommended, however.
Footnotes at the bottom of a page should be set apart in some way from the main body of the text. It is preferable to put them in a smaller typeface than the text itself and separate them with a horizontal line. Your program usually does this automatically. If a footnote is too long to fit at the bottom of its page then it may be continued at the bottom of the next page. But if this happens you might as well incorporate the information it contains in the document itself.

Footnotes in academic writing

In academic writing footnotes are employed mostly to refer to other work of which you have made use, or to which you wish to direct the reader’s attention. The best system to use is the Harvard system (also called the author-date system). In this system you state the author’s surname and the year of publication, e.g. (Smith, 2005). If the reference is part of the structure of the sentence, the date is placed in parentheses, e.g. Smith (2005). These in-text references will allow the reader to turn to a fully detailed list of references in your bibliography at the back of the document. Note that the numerous rules for citing references in academic works are the subject of an article on its own.


When you see a footnote in the main text you have the choice of reading the comments at the bottom of the page or continuing to read the text and deal with the comments later. One of the advantages of endnotes, which are the same as footnotes except that they appear at the very end of the text, is that they aren’t so intrusive and don’t interrupt the flow of the text. Personally I prefer footnotes. If you want your readers to read the footnotes immediately, footnotes are a better way of getting their attention.

Footnotes and endnotes are useful forms of punctuation, especially in academic works, but remember to use them sparingly.


William Faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi.

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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