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Are there any typographic conventions/advice relating to footnotes?

For example:

  • When should numbers be used and when symbols?
  • Should the footnote symbol be superscript in the body text and at the start of the footnote or superscript in the body text and normal size at the start of the footnote?
  • How should footnotes be separated from body text. A horizontal line is common; are there other ways?
  • Should the footnote body start straight after the symbol or be indented or on the following line?

I had a look around the web but couldn't really find anything.

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2 Answers 2

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As you've probably discovered, there is a lot of variation. Most of these decisions should be made case by case to make sure the footnotes work as something clear:

  • Numbers vs symbols vs letters vs Roman numerals: Generally speaking, numbers work when there can potentially be many footnotes or endnotes in a series. Symbols work when there are definitely only one or a few - they more clearly stand out, but are less flexible. Letters can work better than numbers if many of the things with footnotes are numbers themselves, or if the text includes superscript numbers with other meanings (e.g. mathematics and chemistry). Roman numerals are a possible last resort if for some reason nothing else works and you are confident your audience understands them. Sometimes, people use numbers for endnotes (e.g. references) and symbols, or sometimes letters, for within page footnotes with a different meaning (e.g. clarifications).
  • The character in the note itself is almost always often full size (and pretty much always full size in endnotes). The key is, that the character in the text should stand out as something separate to the main text, to minimise disruption to reading, and it's corresponding note should stand out to someone searching the page for it. Reducing size and pushing it away from the baseline helps the character in the main text achieve it's purpose, but would hinder its partner in the note. A footnote number superscript in the note can help by making the correspondence more obvious and unambiguous; a subtle colour change in footnote character in the text and the note to something lighter than the main text can also achieve the same.
  • There's no one answer to how notes should be separated. It's a question of what works in each design. Often, the text blocks' shape and white space themselves are enough, and this is desirable to minimise clutter and noise. Alternatives to lines include pale grey backgrounds, indenting, a thick vertical border on one side, a lighter text colour, a lighter text weight, tighter leading (line spacing), smaller text... Any element that indicates difference and that the block of notes is one cohesive element.
  • Within the note, it's usually the character followed by a gap then the text, but again it depends on case specific requirements. The most important general consideration is, the character in the note needs enough white space and differentiation that it can be easily found by someone searching the page. There are plenty of ways of achieving this.

This covers most of what is true for all footnotes and endnotes. Beyond this, there are as many different sets of rules and conventions as there are publications with style guides. Find some publication types with similar footnote needs to yours, and look at what they do and how it works. Some publications have style guides that are publicly available, which could be a source for examples of how publication-specific conventions are defined.

One area where conventions are more rigid is in choice of symbols. These are usually: * † ‡ in that order. The last two cross-like symbols are technically called 'daggers' and 'double daggers' but those names aren't well known outside typography circles. A double asterisk ** is sometimes used instead of, or before, the dagger for the second symbol-marked note. More than two asterisks begin to really disrupt a passage of text and are worth avoiding unless you're making a joke about how many footnotes there are... Beyond these symbols, there are various old conventions but these are not widely known or recognised by readers, and are more likely to confuse than help. People occasionally combine asterisks and daggers to get extra symbols, like *†, but if you need that many symbols, you should really spare your readers the headache and just use numbers or letters.

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The only place where I might disagree with this otherwise outstanding answer is that in the footnote itself, I often see the footnote referent number also superscripted (as it is in the body text). However, there's no hard rule, and you should follow house style (if there is one) or set it however it looks most legible (if there is no style). –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 7 '12 at 19:07
    
@LaurenIpsum - That's interesting, can you remember any examples of publications where they do that and it works? Thanks :) –  user568458 Oct 7 '12 at 21:53
    
@uuser568458 Pretty much all the time when I was typesetting financial reports -- quarterly commentaries, monthly manager reports, fund fact sheets, that kind of thing. I actually can't remember a financial client in 10 years who didn't superscript the number in the footnote. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 8 '12 at 1:04
    
That's interesting, I don't have enough material available to hand to compare, and I'm starting to wonder now... I've edited slightly, curious about what others' experiences are –  user568458 Oct 8 '12 at 1:34
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Just some additional thoughts to the good answer of user user568458.

In the German typography book "Detailtypographie" (ISBN 978-3874396424) is mentioned, that the footnote number should be in a normal font (no superscript) and the footnote text should be intended on the left side so the reader can easy find the correct footnote:

1  First footnote. First 20 Numbers. First 200000 Numbers.
   Second line. Second line. Second line. Second line.
   ...
10 Footnote ten. Footnote 10. Footnote 10. Footnote 10000.
   Second line of footnote. Second line.

If you have very much footnote you can print them in two columns (with the advantage that the number of characters in on line does not reach 60 or 70 characters per line).

1  First footnote. First 20     3  Third Footnote. no Text
   Second line. Second line        Second Line of Footnote
2  Second footnote. First 2        Third line. 
   Second line. Second line

In Germany the two footnote signs * † have also the meaning of born (*) and died (†). In a German document I do not use this two signs. BTW: does English have the same meaning?

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Yes, * and † do historically have those meanings in English too, but it is little-known and seldom used. Even so, I generally advise against using †. It's true that very very few people will associate it with death, but, many will either not recognise it, or will mistake it for a Christian crucifix. –  user568458 Dec 24 '12 at 18:06
    
I've never heard the asterisk and dagger referring to life/death. Any sources on that? Interesting. –  DA01 Dec 24 '12 at 21:22
1  
@DA01 I'd never heard of it either until I looked for a source on daggers for my answer. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagger_(typography)#Modern_usage - apparently it's used in some dictionaries and encyclopedias to signify obsolescence or to mark year of death. Sounds to me like an obscure scholarly convention. –  user568458 Dec 25 '12 at 10:57
    
@user568458 thanks! I learned something today! –  DA01 Dec 25 '12 at 16:49
    
@DA01: If you can read german just visit this link on the german Wikipedia. It shows the date of birth and death of Mr. Walter Plata with asterix and dagger. It is usual in German to write it short in this way. –  Kurt Dec 25 '12 at 23:43
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