First in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). Episode 1: writing.
The truth about notes
I recently got into a discussion about punctuation rules on Twitter. Yes, people do actually debate these things, including on social media, even if many don’t have an open mind on the matter, so I found.
In retrospect, I think the question (accompanied by a short survey) that meant to spark the debate wasn’t a very useful one: “do the footnote numbers go before or after the period?” One could also tick a third box, “it depends”, and since we’re talking about punctuation a fourth box was added, about using the Oxford comma—completely irrelevant, really, to the question of where notes should be placed in the text.
In my job as a proofreader, I work almost exclusively with Italian native speakers, and one of the most common errors I come across when proofreading their works is the placement of notes before punctuation marks. I know this is common in Italian academia, but I’ve honestly never seen it in any English-language publications in my discipline.
And I have some good piece of literature to back me up: New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2014), endorsed by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (and highly recommended when I took my first proofreading course). It is described as the essential desk guide for all writers and editors. So what does it say on the positioning of notes, I’m sure you are dying to know?
Here it is:
The reader is referred to a footnote or endnote by a cue in the text. This normally takes the form of a superior Arabic number. The cue is placed after any punctuation (normally after the closing point of a sentence). If, however, it relates only to text within parentheses it is placed before the closing parenthesis (pp. 332-333)
Granted, my initial comment to this thread – where I replied to an Italian academic talking about different approaches being used in different languages (something I agreed upon) – must have come across in a wrong, and possibly strong, way, judging from the defensive tone she subsequently took on. In reality I only meant to vent my frustration at having to fix footnotes all too often, when proofreading English texts written by Italian academics—trust me, moving misplaced notes is absurdly boring, and a real drag when using track changes, as these will upset the numbering of the whole note system.
Apparently, though, different practices – and mindsets – exist. So, in spite of the survey resulting in a majority (45%) voting for footnotes after the period (against 32% voting before), I read several confused or opinionated replies to the thread, including a few likes and comments aimed at proving me wrong. I even got mansplained of sorts by a couple of dudes who apparently couldn’t bother to produce any constructive, or even vaguely intelligent, criticism. Instead, they cast my reference to the poor Oxford Style Guide off as “booooooring” (wrong spelling, I replicated), and pointed to a typo introduced by my phone’s autocorrect (being set to Italian rather than English). Wow, really put me on the spot there, big man!
Clearly, there is no golden rule, even when you’re writing in the same language. Whatever “God” or the Polish football manager wish to believe. UK spelling differs from US spelling, and punctuation, too, follows its own rules depending on geography and disciplinary differences. And the style guides used in those disciplines. Which is why a proofreader can be of great help.