Footnotes Versus Endnotes

It has been a growing trend recently to publish books with endnotes instead of footnotes. There are two sensible ideas behind this way of proceeding. Firstly, it is less expensive. Secondly, it makes the page cleaner.

However, there is only one problem with endnotes: they defeat the purpose. The purpose of footnotes (which, of course, are considerably older than endnotes in the history of scholarship) was to ensure that the reader would not be distracted by tangential information, such as the exact source from which a quotation came, or a related argument supporting a point. Endnotes defeat the purpose of such notes because it is an amazingly huge distraction to have to turn to the back of the book so constantly. In a book such as Guy Waters’s otherwise great book on the Federal Vision, which has a mountain of endnotes, it made it difficult to follow the train of thought often. No doubt this is one reason why the Federal Vision advocates have lambasted the book so heavily. The extra time it takes to flip to the back versus looking at the bottom of the page makes all the difference between having to re-learn where you are on the page (when dealing with endnotes) versus being able to construct a mental parenthesis around the footnote (thus allowing a much quicker re-entry into the flow of thought). Publishers! Take note (and make that a footnote, please!)!  

38 Comments

  1. April 3, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    AMEN!

  2. thomasgoodwin said,

    April 3, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Indeed. One of my biggest gripes about Michael Horton’s PhD thesis is that he used endnotes. It is immensely frustrating trying turn pages back and forth. Of course, another question is whether content footnotes should be allowed? There’s a difference, of course, between bibliographical footnotes and content footnotes. The tendency in Europe is to stay away from content footnotes.

    Rationale: if it is important, put it in the text. If it is not, keep it out altogether.

    Counter: I am trying to show that I’ve carefully researched the topic and am aware of other related issues.

    Conclusion: Some do it well, others don’t. Hence the debate.

  3. April 3, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    I hate endnotes.

  4. April 3, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Lane,

    It seems there is something on your blog about which we agree : )…

  5. greenbaggins said,

    April 3, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Mark, I definitely agree with your philosophy of footnotes. If I ever get into publishing my own currently non-existent books with any publisher, I will make that a deal-breaker: footnotes, or I go to another publisher! I also agree about substance footnotes. I don’t like them at all. Footnotes should be a quick note of clarification at most, and most footnotes should be bibliographical in character.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    April 3, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Stephen, that’s a start, I suppose. :-)

  7. Steffen said,

    April 3, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Further to (2) one of the evils of endnotes is that you can’t quickly glance to the foot of the page to see what kind of note it is: is it briefly noted bibliographical information or is it a fascinating paragraph in itself that you want to read? Very tedious!

  8. greenbaggins said,

    April 3, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Steffen, yes, that’s also very irritating.

  9. David Douglas said,

    April 3, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    “No doubt this is one reason why the Federal Vision advocates have lambasted the book so heavily. ”

    No doubt?
    I know this wasn’t your main point but…

    I doubt the issues the FV proponents had with Water’s book would have been attenuated if they had not had to go to the (admittedly) extra work of reading end notes.

    Links to responses to Guy Waters’ book by (at least some of) the FV proponents can be found here: http://www.federal-vision.com/

    If they were unhappy with the end notes, I pretty sure it had to do with their content.

    But yes, I much prefer footnotes, as well.

  10. greenbaggins said,

    April 3, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    David, I think you missed the point of my mentioning FV advocates. It is a somewhat playful jab at FV advocates’ misunderstanding the depth of Guy’s research, and lambasting him while not recognizing that he has accurately pegged them. I’m sure they thought they were critiquing the substance of Guy’s book (by the way, I am fully aware of that website).

  11. David Douglas said,

    April 3, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Ah, yes. Thanks for explaining it. It was playful, if somewhat abstruse. (And I say that as someone whose humor often tends that way, and as someone who often gets same the results you got with me). I guess I just wasn’t up to it today.

    I would be interested in your take (perhaps on a different thread) on Doug’s or John Barach’s (his is much shorter) response(s) to Water’s. Valid/not valid? Why/why not?

  12. April 3, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Re: Age of endnotes versus footnotes. I am not a fan of endnotes either unless they are very lengthy notes, in which case I prefer a mixture of both. What are the approximate dates of introduction? If you look at 17th century works, sidenotes are dominant; however, Robert Baillie uses endnotes to each chapter in his Dissuasive which dates to the 1640s.

  13. greenbaggins said,

    April 3, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Hmm, that’s interesting. But you would say that footnotes (or margin notes) have a more ancient pedigree?

  14. greenbaggins said,

    April 3, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    David, as to John Barach’s views, I responded to them on his blog review, linked from the federal vision website (I’m Lane Keister). Plus, I think Witsius nailed it on that post, and I don’t think Barach even remotely answered Witsius or myself. As to Wilson, I would need more time to look at that.

  15. April 3, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    I dunno Lane; it is an interesting question. Baillie is the only example from the period I recall I”ve run across; marginal notes are more common.

  16. Gavin B said,

    April 3, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I am a new reader of your blog and a first time commenter.

    I am also a first year seminary student at RTS Charlotte and I have grown to loathe endnotes in the books that I have read this year.

    One of my professors said that many authors would prefer to have their books published with footnotes (for the reasons you mentioned in the post) but sometimes publishers will go with endnotes instead (for some of the reasons you mentioned in the post). He said authors always hate it when people take the footnotes on which he worked so hard and move them to the back of the book where so few people will venture to read them.

  17. ReformedSinner (DC) said,

    April 3, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    I totally agree. This endnotes style is ruining well-written books. I don’t know what’s going on, but I am not at all surprise if the motivation is a pure economical one. Looks like even theological professors have to submit to the pressure of the “Free Market.”

  18. thomasgoodwin said,

    April 3, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    17thC had marginalia; so, on the side mostly.

  19. thomasgoodwin said,

    April 3, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    The 19thC reprints omit a lot of the marginalia, thus making them inferior editions IMO.

  20. April 3, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I’m suspect it may be an academic ‘thing’ as much as an economic one. But it is far easier to do page layout by throwing all the notes at the end; and, to really do footnotes well from a layout perspective, doing them manually is best instead of relying on auto footnote placement. So maybe a bit of both?

  21. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 3, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I wonder how much of it is driven by whichever style manual the editor was trained with (Turabian, MLA)?

  22. April 3, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    RE: 21, probably a great deal.

  23. April 3, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    In 1996, Gary North had a page titled “Warning” just prior to the Table of Contents, concerning something of this problem over footnotes and endnotes.
    Then the problem seemed a bit different, but he concluded that rant with this:

    “No wonder academic books use endnotes today. Publishers can’t find a PC typesetting program that automatically does footnotes, putting them at the bottom of the page without defects. Technies who don’t know what a footnote is supposed to do now shape the academic publishing industry.”

    Judging from my own problems with MS Word 2007, I don’t think we’ve come all that far in the last 12 years.

  24. April 3, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    Sorry! Hit that “Submit” button prior to review. That quote was from North’s book, _Crossed Fingers_.

  25. GLW Johnson said,

    April 4, 2008 at 6:42 am

    Al Fisher, who I worked with at P&R and more recently at Crossway, told me that endnotes are part of what goes into marketing a book to the general public. Marketing research showed that footnotes intimidate the average reader-so if you are writing a book designed to appeal to a non-academic audience-more than likely the publisher will go with endnotes.
    I have discovered that the role of marketing a book is very significant and far-reaching. Recently Crossway sent Ron Gleason and me a series ofbook covers for our upcoming book ‘Reforming or Conforming: A Critical Look at Post-Conservative Evangelicalism’- asking which one we preferred. We both selected the same one and informed Crossway of our preference. A few weeks later we were told that Crossway was going with a different cover than the one we chose-why? They took the various covers over to Wheaton college and did a survey with the students and found that they preferred a different cover and that is the one they went with.

  26. April 4, 2008 at 7:25 am

    RE 24&25,
    Wayne, I have to agree with North; though I question the need to vent in the front of that book. Two of the most advanced page layout programs, Framemaker and InDesign, do not do footnotes all that great, but both far better than Word which is not a page layout program. Manual placement is still really the only avenue I think if you are after precision and nice page design. All the footnotes in The Confessional Presbyterian are done manually; i.e. not done with an automatic footnote feature.

  27. Anne said,

    April 4, 2008 at 7:27 am

    Re: #11 “…playful, if somewhat abstruse..”

    Boy, how to describe Lane in five words or fewer!

    :-D

    That’s a sad commentary on the reading public if footnotes are a hindrance to a book. Endnotes drive me mad, for the reasons given.

  28. R. F. White said,

    April 4, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Re: #26 — An author’s dilemma: to maximize the sales of my book, I have to minimize the hindrances to the fabled Average Reader. ENDNOTES ARE A HINDRANCE.

  29. Greg Smith said,

    April 4, 2008 at 11:39 am

    If one of the current presidential candidates adds a plank to his platform to ban endnotes, I will vote for that person. This is how much I hate endnotes.

    And don’t tell me that it is more expensive to produce footnotes. This is the 21st century. Surely, programs can be written to do this easily and solve the layout issues discussed in the comments. The “clutter the page” argument is ridiculous. I also love substance footnotes. These are why I continue to laborously flip to the stupid endnotes section when I am reading a book.

  30. Jeff Cagle said,

    April 4, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I’m hoping it’s a moot point. If we can create a viable e-book format, one that well-approximates the look and feel of a paper book, then all our references can be hyper-links.

    I would cheerfully give up most of the benefits of paper over e-format in exchange for (a) the ability to instantly check the full source of the reference, (b) the ability to insert my own notes and hyperlink them to the appropriate page(s), and (c) the ability to rescue my shelves from their current double-parked state. Add voice-activation (“Page 25”), and I’m completely sold.

    Jeff

  31. rjs1 said,

    April 4, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Endnotes are not the greatest, bu I do like footnotes of content. Especially if the issue is historic or linguistic. One example is E. J. Young’s commentary on Isaiah. The text is easy to read and flows simply but there are footnotes full of detail that, were they in the text, would make it very tough going. At the end you then have some mini essays as appendicies on important issues. IMO that should be the model.

  32. Dan Phillips said,

    April 4, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    Endnotes are a curse; I’ve often beaten this drum. I’ve heard the same rationale for them, and it is not rational. The presence of footnotes stops no one from ignoring them; but their relocation to the end requires two bookmarks, and constant paging back and forth. As you say well, it defeats the purpose. It also rubbishes the careful work of the author in documenting or honing his case.

    “No” to endnotes.

    But good luck in wrestling your future publisher to the ground on this one. Bean-counters rule over all.

  33. Colin said,

    April 5, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Another comment by Gary North on Endnotes:

    “endnotes are footnotes for lazy typesetters”

    –“The Legacy of Hatred Continues” [p.ix] Publisher’s Foreword

    I’ve read many Christian books over the past 30 years, and the contents of the ones I remember most were mostly supplied with footnotes, so I share your frustration with those cursed endnotes.

    BTW nearly all Theonomic books have been published with footnotes, thus adding to their scholarly value. The only exception being the works of Dr. F. Nigel Lee.

    Lastly, IMO Mr. Gary North writes the most witty and fascinating footnotes I’ve ever come across. OTOH Dr. Nigel Lee supplies possibly the most numerous (yet highly informative) endnotes in the history of reformed publishing, thus he could be excused for not retypesetting his larger books to include footnotes.

  34. Tony said,

    April 6, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Endnotes are not elect! They are eternally reprobated, even in a supralapsarian Hoeksemian sense. Endnotes were never loved, and never had any grace in them. Endnotes are textual vessels of wrath, much like Esau :) lol

    Greg Smith said:

    “If one of the current presidential candidates adds a plank to his platform to ban endnotes, I will vote for that person. This is how much I hate endnotes.”

    Greg is clearly elect :)

  35. Barry Waugh said,

    April 7, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I have found the variation in documentation formats to be inadequate and sometimes confusing, but I can understand the concern of publishers to try and reach as large a reading public as possible. I know that there have been times that I have considered reading articles in academic journals and a quick glance through the article intimidated me because there wete several pages with more notes than text–my thought being, “Do I really want to wade through all of this and am I that interested in this subject?” I can understand a person who is not familiar with foot or end notes being intimidated; those unfamiliar with the notes become confused and lost in the documentation and the arguments. It seems to me, and I say this reluctantly, that the best compromise is the consistent and precise use of the superscript numbers referencing the documentation in endnotes. The novice may follow the trail of superscript numbers for a few entries and realize that the information is not needed, while the more thorough reader can keep a finger in the endnote section and flip back and forth for information. I think that endnotes that have the beginning and ending pages defined at the top of the page in the endnote section are more user-friendly than endnotes that simply list chapters and then the successive numbers referring back to the superscript numbers in the text.

  36. ReformedSinner (DC) said,

    April 7, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Maybe I am no longer qualify to speak as a “casual reader”, but why are footnotes so “intimidating?” Why can’t a reader simply ignore them and only read the main body of texts?

  37. April 13, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    i prefer endnotes to footnotes myself. I find the reading is easier ans smoother to focus on. If there is a comment I really like, I will go to the endnote and write it in the text itself.

  38. April 16, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Positive qualities aside, sometimes I think the real purpose of endnotes is to hide lazy scholarship, by depending on having lazy readers (like myself) who would rather not flip to the back of a book constantly. I can’t stand endnotes, because when I see that little postscript number I know that either I can blow ten minutes going back and forth between the text and endnote and then lose my place and thoughts, or just take the author’s word for it that their argument is supported in such-and-such a way, or that person X’s work does actually say what the author claims it does, etc. I hate endnotes…


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