by Pavlos Andronikos
There was a time when footnotes were conveniently put where they should be—at the bottom of the page. You glanced down, read them, and carried on. Now they always seem to be gathered together at the end of the book, so that the procedure for reading them goes something like this:
- turn to the back of the book,
- realise you don’t know the number of the chapter you were in,
- go back to where you were, and
- leaf through the pages looking for the beginning of the chapter to discover the chapter number.
By this time you have forgotten the footnote number so you have to locate your page again, and finally, armed with chapter number and footnote number you go to the back of the book to read the desired footnote. Now, you just have to find the page you were on again, but by this time you’ve lost the thread of what you were reading so that when you do locate your page you have to read it all over again.
The irony is that in the good old days before “word processing”—Who came up with that awful term?—printers (i.e., people not machines) had to go to a lot of trouble to typeset each page, yet they still managed to put footnotes where they should be. Nowadays, when page layout is done by computer, and it is so much easier to put footnotes on the page where they belong, publishers seem wilfully intent on making the life of footnote readers difficult.
Anyone would think authors don’t really want you to read their footnotes. Could it be that they include them just for the appearance of academic credibility?
I confess that I have often wondered if that is the case, just as I have often thought that the use of abbreviated Latin words and phrases such as ibid., op. cit., etc. may be merely a way of signifying academic credibility: “Look at me, folks, I can use these Latin abbreviations, just like the real academics of yore.”
Before computers, when one had to write everything out by hand and typesetting was painstaking manual labour, it made sense to use such abbreviations, but since all one has to do nowadays is copy and paste, there is no reason why each footnote should not contain either a full citation, or, as a minimum, author, title, and page number, with the other details in a bibliography. There is little more annoying than having to work back though a long string of ibids and op cits to find the source.
Postscript: I did once advise a postgraduate student I was supervising to use the system I am promoting here rather than the traditional Latin words and phrases. I was very disappointed when one of the thesis examiners decided that this was a nit he had to pick… but then he was a classicist!
In closing, I applaud The Chicago Manual of Style for stating that Latin footnote abbreviations are “rightly falling into disuse”. Good riddance!