On the Decline of the Footnote: Another Declinist Lament

Serious reading and study has been my fate and pleasure since I began college in 1975. Along the way, footnotes became my friends. Before college, I flitted with a few books here and there, mostly related to my interests in music and the counterculture I read the pop rock magazine called Cream and the more serious Rolling Stone. I read a book or two by Aldous Huxley. By looking up big words, I could whip off a sesquipedalian once in a while. I also enlisted them in writing for the West High School newspaper, The Eagle’s Cry (1973-75).

My writing in college required genuine research and official documentation. Enter the footnote. Since I was now philosophy major (after two years in journalism), my professors assigned papers—many papers. I wrote eighty-five pages of papers (on an electric typewriter, no less) in one quarter. They are all in my files somewhere.

As I began publishing in magazines and then writing books and academic articles, I had to master the fine art of the footnote. Gary North, a fiery and prolific writer, claimed that we could win the culture war through footnotes! That was an overstatement, but I mostly agreed. (In the preface to one of my books, I encouraged the readers to consult the footnotes, since I had spent two days rechecking them.)[1] Christians should out-think and out-write the world for Christ and his Kingdom. That requires thorough and proper documentation—and it was laborious before the word processor.

Thus, the footnote has been my nearly constant companion in the world of ideas. My first wife, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954-2018), edited all my published work through Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011). She was fastidious to ensure that the footnotes were shipshape. Christian Apologetics has well over a thousand footnotes. (I prefer footnotes over endnotes, since footnotes allow you to read the citation more easily than turning to the end of the chapter or the end of the book or article.)

Sadly, this old philosopher has noted a decline in the quality of the footnote in recent years. Of course, footnotes can just be flubbed—dates of publication are incorrect, titles misstated, page numbers are off. But, I detect a general shift in the specificity and—the authenticity—of footnotes. I will speak primarily of footnotes in publications, not in student papers, thousands of which I have graded. Concerning these efforts, I have two points First, too many students get creative or sloppy in footnotes. Be creative in your use of sources? Yes. Be creative in the form of the footnote? No! (The same goes for grammar, of course.) And concerning sloppiness—is it ever good to be sloppy? The student record for errors in one footnote (at the time of this writing) is six. Second, and on the happy side, I am proud of my student who correctly planted three footnotes in one sentence! Now on to professional publications.

Citations should almost always invoke the original source. Thus, if you quote Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900), you cite the primary work, such as The Anti-Christ, from whence the quote comes. What if you find a juicy quote in a book that cites Nietzsche? If so, you hunt down the original quote for yourself. Libraries and inter-library loan still exist. Only rarely do you write, “as quoted in…,” which means you have not seen the original source. Relying on someone else’s primary research is not advisable, except rarely as when the original source cannot be tracked down. However, if your footnotes says, “as quoted in…,” you need to give the original citation, so the reader can know what the primary source is, even if you have not seen the primary source in the original form.

Sadly, I now often find footnotes that refer to a secondary work for a primary citation that omit the bibliographic details of the original source. So, we might read:

  1. Frederick Nietzsche, as quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 198.

That is inexcusably incomplete, because I gave the original source reference in Truth Decay. Therefore, it should be cited.

Pandemic is another footnote infraction—omitting the original date of publication of a book. When I read a footnote, I want to know when the book was first published because it places the work in a narrative of the author’s other work and in a general climate of intellectual opinion. It is rather important to know that C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain (a philosophical work) well before A Grief Observed (a lament over the death of his wife, Joy Davidman). Consider this footnote:

  1. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.

Lewis died in 1963, so that cannot be the original date of publication; that is, unless it is a posthumously published work—which it is not. Properly formatted, the footnote should read thusly:

  1. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (orig. pub., 1940; New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.

Yet another error is the missing footnote or the sin of omission. Most writing that directly quotes an author should include a footnote, unless the quote is common knowledge, such as “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” But much common knowledge is not true. Many cite Blaise Pascal as writing, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every person that only God can fill.” It is a profound statement, but he never wrote it. Rather, it is a paraphrase of a longer and more philosophically nuanced quote from Pensées.

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.[2]

My last bleat targets the content of footnotes. Historically, a footnote refers to a written source, usually published. Occasionally, a footnote will cite an unpublished manuscript. Now, I am finding footnotes to YouTube videos, which, of course, are not written sources at all. I found this in the otherwise excellent Competing Spectacles; Treasuring Christ in the Media Age (2019) by Tony Reinke. If the video is of an expert speaking on their expertise, this is forgivable. But, still, published sources, given their legitimacy, should have the priority.

I could belabor the point pedantically. Some of my readers may have already rendered that judgment about this essay as it stands. Nevertheless, the footnote can be a loyal advocate for truth about what matters. Therefore, let us respect it by using it virtuously.


[1] I forgot which book. If you read this footnote, then hooray.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. A. Krailsheimer (New York; Penguin Books, 1966), 75.

3 thoughts on “On the Decline of the Footnote: Another Declinist Lament

  1. I found myself nodding vigorously as I read this. Regarding footnotes versus endnotes – the increasing use of the latter is one reason I never read non-fiction on a tablet or Kindle; even the well-formatted books with electronic links that allow you to jump from text to endnote and back make for a tedious read.
    The worst offense by far is the dearth of source attribution altogether. I would take endnotes any day over complete lack of citation, which seems prolific these days. Heather MacDonald (The War on Cops; The Diversity Delusion) comes to mind as a notorious offender. If an author is providing statistics, I expect to be provided with the data source. Obviously the author had to access the source when writing to ensure their information was correctly stated, which makes the failure to provide the source nothing less than laziness!

  2. This is timely for me as I am currently grading philosophy papers for a Christian university you probably know well. I have graded close to one hundred papers so far, and not a single student has formatted their footnotes properly. Between citing sources that Nietzsche apparently wrote in 1995, and the complete ignorance regarding the use of ‘Ibid.,’ I’m convinced that this particular institution provides no Turabian training, all the while expecting them to use it. The greatest offense so far, however, is the paper I just read that cited an A&E Biography documentary for information on Aristotle. How many thousands of books have been written on Aristotle, and we’re citing a television show?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s