Yes and No – footnotes

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A question that comes up regularly in the forums is, “We use MLA; can we use this style with footnotes?”

I think there are two answers to this. The first is “No, you can’t.” The second is, “Yes you can.”

Before I explain my thinking, I will just add that the reason most frequently given for wanting to use MLA and footnotes is “the word count.” If the citation is in a footnote and footnotes aren’t counted in the word count, then the rationale is that using footnotes will save words. This could be crucial in, for instance, an IB Extended Essay.

Q:  Can we use MLA style and footnotes?
A:  No, you can’t.

MLA, the student-level style guide of the Modern Language Association as published in the MLA Handbook, recommended the use of footnotes in the 1st edition, published in 1977;  in the 2nd edition, published in 1984, MLA stated a preference for citation in the text. (This piece of history is gleaned from page xi of the 8th edition, published in 2016.)

The 6th edition (2003) noted that some disciplines using MLA still used “endnotes or footnotes to document sources,” and gave a few examples in an appendix (298 ff). The only recommendation regarding footnotes in the 7th edition (2009) was that they be used (only) for explanation or clarification of a passage in the text and/or for comment on sources or a listing of multiple sources adding to the points made in the text (230 ff).  The implication is that footnote documentation as a standard method of documenting sources would/should no longer to be used – or  supported. The latest edition, the 8th edition, makes no mention of footnotes at all.

So, the short answer to the question, Can we use MLA and footnotes? is : if your instructor, school or college or examination board demands the use of MLA7 (the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook), then footnotes can be used only for the purposes suggested.  You may lose marks for incorrect formatting and use of MLA if you use MLA7 style in your footnotes – especially if you use footnotes instead of in-text citation.

If your instructor, school or exam board demands the use of MLA8, then – given the spirit of this edition, one of the main aims of citation and referencing being to help the reader – I would suggest that the same thoughts hold: explanation and/or listing multiple sources. Again, you could lose marks for incorrect formatting and use of MLA in your footnotes – especially if you use footnotes instead of in-text citation.

Note: “may lose marks for incorrect formatting.”  Incorrect formatting, in in-text citations, in footnotes or in references, is not misconduct. This is not cheating. Incorrect formatting is the equivalent of a spelling or grammar mistake, a calculation error in mathematics. It is not misconduct, it is not plagiarism.

If your school requires you to use the 6th or earlier edition of MLA, then a quiet and carefully-worded suggestion that the school get into the 21st century might be appropriate.

One other thought here: MLA allows for the use of explanatory footnotes. IB does not. In the past, students have sometimes attempted to evade word count limits by including explanations, clarifications and additional thoughts in footnotes. IB examiners are instructed to disregard such footnotes but to include them in the word count. Bibliographic footnotes continue to be read and are not included in the word count.

Q:  Can we use MLA style and footnotes?
A:  Yes, you can.

Style guides are just that: guides to style.  One of the principles of MLA, many other referencing style guides too, is to allow a degree of flexibility in its use by individuals, institutions and organisations. There is freedom to add institutional or organisational rules or guidance. What is important is consistent usage and helping the reader, consistency and helpfulness as against notions of correctness.

Thus IB can legitimately prefer or require that students always use URLs in their references, even when MLA7 said these were unnecessary – but may be used “when your instructor requires it”  (MLA7, p. 182).

MLA8 no longer suggests a date of access to online sources, but again, the IB requires students to “date-stamp” their references.

For IB students writing IB assignments, IB requirements should take precedence over MLA suggestions and guidance.

That can be a frustration for students and for teachers, that there may be more than one way to cite a source and that IB (and other bodies) can add their own variations.   But this is spelled out as one of the core principles of MLA8:

Remember that there is often more than one correct way to document a source (p. 4).

It may also be frustrating that IB allows the use of any documentation style guide, as long as references are complete and recorded consistently.

But internal consistency of formatting is what is sought, not notional correctness. A list of Works Cited in which some of the references are recorded

          Lastname, Firstname, “Title of article,” Title of magazine,  Date
but others are
          Firstname Lastname, (Date), Title of article, Title of magazine
and others still are
           Title of article Date, Lastname Firstname, “Title of magazine”

could be confusing and unhelpful to the reader. If all elements are entered in the same order and the same punctuation, then confusion is minimised.  Nitpicking pedantry, perhaps, except that, reading student work, one is unsure whether you are looking at the title of an article (or webpage) or looking at the title of the magazine (or the name of the website). Consistency serves purposes, it is helpful.

Helpfulness to the reader is vital. (Completeness of entry is another factor which makes for  helpfulness, but this is a subject so big that it is best left to another post.)

What is important here is the acceptance that MLA formatting can be used in footnotes. It is not wrong. It is not MLA but it is a variation on MLA.

As has been noted before in this blog, EndNote “EndNote offers more than 6,000 bibliographic styles” while RefME claims more than 7500 referencing styles, and this week I discovered the crowd-sourced CSL Repository which includes more than 8000 citation and bibliographic styles

There is huge overlap and duplication among the styles, or inconsequential variation between, perhaps the use of <angle parentheses> as against (rounded parentheses), or the use of single or double inverted commas. A few styles are obscure and are unlikely ever to be used outside the most exalted realms of academic publishing, but many more are accessible and are used.  When the rubrics allow the use of any style as long as it is used consistently. notions of correctness go out of the window.

So yes, MLA-style footnotes are acceptable, as long as one is not required to follow strictly the guidance and examples used in MLA7 or MLA8. Nobody can say you have formatted incorrectly if a required format (style guide) is not specified.

There are two further thoughts to pursue.

The first is that footnotes in MLA, strict MLA (per editions six and earlier), are NOT written with the same formatting as those in the list of Works Cited. It is not simply a case of following MLA format for the numbered footnote, and copy-pasting it into its alphabetical place in the list at the end. The examples given, those in MLA6, show a natural or conversational single-sentence approach, for instance:

       1 Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, 2002) 32.
.      2 Diana Rigg, perf., Medea, by Euripides, trans. Alistair Elliot, dir. Jonathan Kent, Longacre Theatre, New York, 7 Apr. 1994
.      3 Annie Murphy Paul, “Self-Help: Shattering the Myths,” Psychology Today Mar-Apr. 2001: 60.
.      4 F. W. Murnau, dir., Nosferatu, 1922, The Sync, 16 June 2002 <http://www.thesync.com/ram/nosferatu.ram>.

(These examples are taken from MLA6, pages 300, 304, 312 and 307 respectively.)

Compare these with the entries as they would – and do – appear in a list of Works Cited:

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences
      of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, 2002.

Murnau, F. W., dir, Nosferatu. 1922. The Sync. 16 June 2002
      <http://www.thesync.com/ram/nosferatu.ram>.

Paul, Annie Murphy . “Self-Help: Shattering the Myths.” Psychology
     Today Mar-Apr. 2001: 60-68.

Rigg, Diana, perf. Medea. By Euripides. Trans. Alistair Elliot. Dir.
     Jonathan Kent. Longacre Theatre, New York. 7 Apr. 1994

(MLA6, pages 147, 232, 188 and 200 respectively).

Of course, now that word processing is all but universal, these entries are just as likely to appear with Titles in Italic Font as against Titles Underlined – underlining being a signal to the typesetter that italic font was to be used.

Does it matter if, instead of the conversational single-sentence format, the footnote or endnote is an exact replication of the MLA-style bibliographic entry – with the addition of page numbers, frame times, Act & Scene numbers and so on to enable precise location within the source cited? It’s a similar question to the main question, and a similar answer. If the writer is required to use strict MLA then correctness is an issue and deviation from strict MLA advice may be penalised. If there is no such requirement, then correctness is not an issue, it is more important to be consistent and complete.

For what it is worth, MLA6 also makes the point that, unless otherwise instructed, notes should be presented as endnotes at the end of the paper and not as footnotes at the foot of the page on which the superscript number is inserted in the text. As a personal note, I do not like footnotes, having to leave my place on the page in order to take in the note at the foot of the page and then find my place in the text again. I do not like footnotes, but I hate endnotes, for one has to leave the page, find the note at the end of the paper or book, and then find both the page and the place on the page where I left off. Footnotes and endnotes are unhelpful to the reader, this reader – but this is a personal opinion.

MLA6 also suggests (page 298) that if notes are used, then it may not be necessary to have an alphabetical list of works cited as well – but again, writers are advised to check with instructors.

The second thought worth pursuing is a matter of style and readability and understanding. Do footnotes really save words in the word count? If saving in word count is achieved, is it counter-balanced by losses of other kinds?

Take, for instance, this paragraph:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital.  Dr Ben Goldacre, a highly-respected investigative medical doctor. declares, “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’” (1).  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

That is 70 words (not including the parenthetical (1) – in most IB assessments, parenthetical citations are not included in the word count.

Now try this:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital. Goldacre declared “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’” (1).  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

This is shorter, 63 words, but we have lost that link which establishes Ben Goldacre’s credentials. In practice, someone versed in the subject may know who Goldacre is, and so appreciate the opinion that more than someone who has no knowledge of the man – but should the writer take that chance? Those extra 7 words pack a lot of power.

Now this:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital. It has been noted that “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’” (Goldacre 1).  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

This is 66 words, two words MORE than the previous example – and we don’t know who is being quoted until near the end of the paragraph. We now save only 4 words but we have lost power, and more.

The footnoted form loses no words and adds only anonymity to the quotation:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital. It has been noted that “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’.” 1 This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

66 words again, less helpful, less authoritative, less crediblity established.

It does not have to be like that with the footnoted form: you can establish authority in the text:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital.  Dr Ben Goldacre, a highly-respected investigative medical doctor. declares, “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’.” 1  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

That is good news for users of Chicago or any other brand of footnoting, including variations on MLA – but it does negate the choice of a footnoting style solely or mainly on the grounds of word-count.

For the record, the full bibliographic reference for the Goldacre quotation is:

Goldacre, Ben. Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors
      and Harm Patients. London: Fourth Estate, 2012.

In sum: footnoting? fine, if you must. Just be consistent!

Endnote:

The MLA Handbook (8th edition 2016) was titled MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers up to and including the 7th edition, 2009. The handbook is intended for students in universities, colleges and schools.

The Modern Language Association also publishes the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. This is intended for professional writers and for scholars, and its 3rd edition was published in 2008.

[The views and interpretations expressed in this article are entirely my own and are not necessarily approved or endorsed by the Modern Languages Association or the authors and editors of the various MLA manuals and handbooks.]

 

One thought on “Yes and No – footnotes

  1. Pingback: A footnote on footnotes | Honesty, honestly…

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