From footnote to endnote to what note?

Noël Coward once opined
Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.
Being an IP blog, this Kat will focus on the subject matter of the first part of Coward’s observation. The most salient question today is not what has happened to the footnote (going, going, and increasingly gone, at least for the mainstream book publishing world), but the depressing fate of the footnote’s more recent first cousin, the endnote. The moral of the story (with particular attention to Noël Coward): be careful what you wish for.

First, some background. In medieval times, third-party glosses to a manuscript text were made by hand and placed either between the lines of the text or in the blank spaces surrounding the text. However, the problem arose that if there were multiple notes on a given page, later readers often found it difficult to connect these glosses with the respective corresponding portions of the text.

The solution was for “gloss-writers” to use symbols that would connect between the two. Symbols, and not numbers, were employed, because Arabic numerals did not come into use in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages.

Once  the printing press came onto the scene, however, the aesthetics of the page layout became a commercial consideration, as interlinear and marginal comments were considered unwieldly. The solution, as attributed to Richard Judge, the Queen’s Printer in the later 16th century, in connection with his producing a new Anglican Bible, was to move all notes to the bottom of the page. Voilà— the footnote as a mode of textual presentation had come into being.

Cultural historian Anthony Grafton devoted an entire book to the subsequent development of the footnote (“The Footnote: A Curious History”, here). In considering Grafton’s book, Amelia Kennedy underscored how the footnote became a key tool in the emerging development of scholarship, particularly history, with an emphasis on the form of the narrative, where reliable support was expected for each assertion. The poster child for the rise of the footnote was its use by the 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon, who turned footnotes into a means “to amuse his friends or enrage his enemies.”

But the footnote was also the object of criticism. For the reader, a footnote, by its nature, posed a challenge.
Ah hah, footnote 4-- should I now stop reading the main text and consider the footnote, or should I wait until I reach the bottom of the page?
Either way, the reading of the narrative has been interrupted. Moreover, extensive footnotes were increasingly viewed as a ploy to pad the text, hiding the fact that the author has little of substance to convey. [Merpel notes: How can anyone forget the 165-page footnote that John Hodgson, a 19th century British author, wrote in his “History of Northumberland”.]

Further, what might be particularly appropriate for the writing of history was perhaps far less so for other forms of analysis. As Norris Pope observed: how much does a work of philosophy or literary criticism, where the emphasis is more on the author’s speculation rather than a jaunt through secondary sources, really need a full-fledged system of footnotes?

As for authors (including students), the footnote, together with op. cit., loc. cit., ibid, id., cf, and the like, is usually a chore to be persevered. All in all, the footnote was at best tolerated; seldom, if ever, loved.

But like so much in the world of book publishing, the biggest challenge to the footnote came from commercial pressures. As explained by Bruce Anderson, the market for a work of non-fiction likely to be replete with footnotes, especially for an academic press, was first and foremost university libraries. [This Kat recalls that when he was involved in publishing such a work four decades ago, his university publisher explained how standing orders from university libraries effectively ensured that a book such as his would break-even financially.] But those days are gone, the victim of diminished acquisition budgets.

One solution was to seek to broaden the readership audience for the book. As reported by Anderson (in the words of the New York Times), the strategy was to produce books with "catchier titles, snappier covers, more and better illustrations and fewer footnotes and bibliographies." Which is what has happened.

Some books have eschewed annotation completely, others have moved the notes to the end of a chapter, or even to the end of the book. The footnote had morphed (mutated?) into the endnote. Now, instead of having to decide whether to interrupt the reading experience by glancing at the bottom of the page, the reader increasingly needs to look for the endnotes, be they at the end of the chapter or the back of the book.

Hardly desirable, but this Kat ultimately came to terms with the endnote in this format. The problem is that the endnote has continued to mutate. Over the last several years, not only have the notes been physically uncoupled from the page to which they are referring, but the notation linking the text being commented upon with the respective note has also disappeared.

Consider the book, “The Swerve”. Published in 2011 and written by Harvard academic Stephen Greenblatt, the book was the winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Price. The publisher was not a university press but W.W. Norton. Take page 289 as an example (see below). It contains multiple endnotes for pages 124 and 127, but no notation on either of the pages to indicate  which part of the text is being commented upon by these respective endnotes.

There is nothing unique in this layout. The endnote number has disappeared, leaving only the page and contents of the endnote, forcing the reader to guess to what contents the endnote is referring.

There is a back to the future feeling in all of this. The footnote arose because of the clutter of multiple handwritten comments on a page. That was bad for the reader. The fate of the endnote and the problem of clutter is taking us back to those bad old days. Once again, we find multiple comments appearing with respect to a given page in the main text; once again, the reader is  challanged to ascertain to what the comments refer.

To a reader, that may be a lot worse than having to go down the stairs.
From footnote to endnote to what note? From footnote to endnote to  what note? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, February 17, 2021 Rating: 5


  1. On which, see Orin S. Kerr, A Theory of Law , 16 GREEN BAG 2 D 11 1 (2012),

  2. Hi Neil

    Great post on footnotes and endnotes. I am a fan of the former and dislike the latter, and especially dislike the uncoupled version.

    In case you haven't come across it, there's a wonderful novel (or at least I remember it as wonderful, but I haven't read it in years) called The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker ( It has footnotes that in some case span pages (though not on the scale of John Hodgson's example) and are full of observations about the most trivial and mundane parts of daily existence. The narrator uses the footnotes to detail his internal monologue - examples include trying to figure out the fundamental reason that one shoelace breaks before the other, advice on what line to stand in at the cash register (don't pick the shortest; pick the one with the smartest clerk), a table of how many times a year he has particular recurring thoughts, and of course a footnotes on the pleasure of footnotes (he suggests that prolific footnote writers of the past like Boswell, Lecky and Gibbon "knew the anticipatory pleasure of sensing with peripheral vision, as they turned the page, a gray silt of further example and qualification waiting in tiny type at the bottom".

    For fans of footnotes it's a must-read.

  3. I used to make much use of brief footnotes when writing articles for CIPA and the EPI journal. They can help to maintain the flow of the narrative. Longer items of text would be presented either as appendices (corresponding to chapter endnotes in a book) or else appear in a box within the body of the text.

    Replies to official letters during examination do not normally lend themselves to footnotes, but I normally used to use appendices when addressing matters such as correction of obvious errors in drawings. This meant that a fully detailed reasoning for allowing the request to correct could be presented as a self-contained document without making the letter itself overlong. The requests to correct often included annotated drawings and highly detailed argumentation as to why, for example, the person skilled in the art would immediately realise that such and such a diode had been drawn the wrong way round and that reversing it was the only possible way to make the circuit operate as described in the description. I felt this type of presentation would assist the examiner by breaking what would otherwise have been a lengthy letter into more readily-digestable self-contained chunks. It usually achieved a sucessful outcome.


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