A note is a string of text placed at the bottom of a page in a book or document or at the end of a chapter, volume or the whole text. The note can provide an author's comments on the main text or citations of a reference work in support of the text.
Footnotes are notes at the foot of the page while endnotes are collected under a separate heading at the end of a chapter, volume, or entire work. Unlike footnotes, endnotes have the advantage of not affecting the layout of the main text, but may cause inconvenience to readers who have to move back and forth between the main text and the endnotes.
In some editions of the Bible, notes are placed in a narrow column in the middle of each page between two columns of biblical text.
In English, a footnote or endnote is normally flagged by a superscripted number immediately following that portion of the text the note references, each such footnote being numbered sequentially. Occasionally a number between brackets or parentheses is used instead, thus: , which can also be superscripted.
Typographical devices such as the asterisk (*) or dagger (†) may also be used to point to notes; the traditional order of these symbols in English is *, †, ‡, §, |, ¶. Other symbols, including the #, Δ, ◊, ↓, and ☞, have also been used. In documents like timetables, many different symbols, letters and numbers may be used to refer the reader to particular notes.
Notes are most often used as an alternative to long explanations, citations, comments or annotations that can be distracting to readers. Most literary style guidelines (including the Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association) recommend limited use of foot and endnotes. However, publishers often encourage note references in lieu of parenthetical references. Aside from use as a bibliographic element, notes are used for additional information, qualification or explanation that might be too digressive for the main text. Footnotes are heavily utilized in academic institutions to support claims made in academic essays covering myriad topics.
In particular, footnotes are the normal form of citation in historical journals. This is due, firstly, to the fact that the most important references are often to archive sources or interviews which do not readily fit standard formats, and secondly, to the fact that historians expect to see the exact nature of the evidence which is being used at each stage.
The MLA (Modern Language Association) requires the superscript numbers in the main text to be placed following the punctuation in the phrase or clause the note is in reference to. The exception to this rule occurs when a sentence contains a dash, in which case the superscript would precede it.
Aside from their technical use, authors use notes for a variety of reasons:
As signposts to direct the reader to information the author has provided or where further useful information is pertaining to the subject in the main text.
To attribute a quote or viewpoint.
As an alternative to parenthetical references; it is a simpler way to acknowledge information gained from another source.
To escape the limitations imposed on the word count of various academic and legal texts which do not take into account notes. Aggressive use of this strategy can lead to a text affected by "foot and note disease" (a derogation coined by John Betjeman).
HTML, the predominant markup language for web pages, has no mechanism for marking up notes. Despite a number of different proposals over the years, and repeated pleas from the user base, the working group has been unable to reach a consensus on it. Because of this, MediaWiki, for example, has had to introduce its own <ref></ref> tag for citing references in notes, an idea which has since also been implemented for generic use by the Nelson HTML preprocessor.
It might be argued that the hyperlink partially eliminates the need for notes, being the web's way to refer to another document. However, it does not allow citing to offline sources and if the destination of the link changes, the link can become dead or irrelevant. A proposed solution is the use of a digital object identifier.
Early printings of the Douay Bible used two closely spaced colons (actually squared four dot punctuation mark U+2E2C) to indicate a marginal note.
At times, notes have been used for their comical effect, or as a literary device.
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake uses footnotes along with left and right marginal notes in Book II Chapter 2. The three types of notes represent comments from the three siblings doing their homework: Shem, Shaun, and Issy.
J.G. Ballard's "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown," is one sentence ("A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles 'Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,' recalling his wife's murder, his trial and exoneration.") and a series of elaborate footnotes to each one of the words.
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves uses what are arguably some of the most extensive and intricate footnotes in literature. Throughout the novel, footnotes are used to tell several different narratives outside of the main story. The physical orientation of the footnotes on the page also works to reflect the twisted feeling of the plot (often taking up several pages, appearing mirrored from page to page, vertical on either side of the page, or in boxes in the center of the page, in the middle of the central narrative).
Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman utilizes extensive and lengthy footnotes for the discussion of a fictional philosopher, de Selby. These footnotes span several pages and often overtake the main plotline, and add to the absurdist tone of the book.
David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest includes over 400 endnotes, some over a dozen pages long. Several literary critics suggested that the book be read with two bookmarks. Wallace uses footnotes, endnotes, and in-text notes in much of his other writing as well.
Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (originally published in Spanish as El beso de la mujer araña) also makes extensive use of footnotes.
Luis d'Antin van Rooten's Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames (the title is in French, but when pronounced, sounds similar to the English"Mother Goose Rhymes"), in which he is allegedly the editor of a manuscript by the fictional François Charles Fernand d’Antin, contains copious footnotes purporting to help explain the nonsensical French text. The point of the book is that each written French poem sounds like an English nursery rhyme.
Terry Pratchett has made numerous uses within his novels. The footnotes will often set up running jokes for the rest of the novel.
B.L.A. and G.B. Gabbler's meta novel The Automation makes uses of footnotes to break the fourth wall. The narrator of the novel, known as "B.L.A.," tells the fantastical story as if true, while the editor, Gabbler, annotates the story through footnotes and thinks the manuscript is only a prose poem attempting to be a literary masterwork.
John Green's An Abundance of Katherines uses footnotes in which he says: "[They] can allow you to create a kind of secret second narrative, which is important if, say, you're writing a book about what a story is and whether stories are significant."
Dr Carol Bolton uses extensive footnotes to provide the modern reader with a cipher for a novel about the travels of the fictional Spanish traveller Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, an early 19th-century construct of Robert Southey's, designed to provide him with vehicle to critique the societal habits of the day.
Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series exploits the use of footnotes as a communication device (the footnoterphone) which allows communication between the main character’s universe and the fictional bookworld.
Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary follows each brief entry with a footnote (often five or six times the length of the main text) in which saints, historical figures, and other topics are used as examples for philosophical digression. The separate footnotes are designed to contradict each other, and only when multiple footnotes are read together is Bayle's core argument for Fideistic skepticism revealed. This technique was used in part to evade the harsh censorship of 17th century France.
Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version uses footnotes as a character device that highlights unreliable passages in the narration. As the editor of his father's autobiography, the narrator's son must correct any of his father's misstated facts. The frequency of these corrections increases as the father falls victim to both hubris and Alzheimer's disease. While most of these changes are minor, a few are essential to plot and character development.
^Robert Bringhurst (2005). The Elements of Typographic Style (version 3.1). Point Roberts, WA: Hartley and Marks. pp 68–69. Bringhurst goes on to say “But beyond the ... double dagger, this order is not familiar to most readers, and never was.”