Footnote folly

One disadvantage of being an editor is the habit of reading pedantically. When most people come across misused words, grammatical mistakes or erratic punctuation they use their natural ability to infer meaning from the jumble (try reading the transcript of a conversation you understood perfectly well to see how good you are at finding order amidst chaos). But when editors come across the same problems they tend to fixate on the errors instead of what the author is actually saying.

This happened to me on Tuesday when I was reading the High Court’s industrial relations judgment. I was continually distracted by the wrong placement of footnotes. Take these two not untypical sentences:

The constitutional underpinning of the legislation was noted, but not questioned[8]. McHugh J said[9] that “[t]he corporations power provides a broader basis upon which s 170LI may operate”.

Which should have been written:

The constitutional underpinning of the legislation was noted, but not questioned.[8] McHugh J said that “[t]he corporations power provides a broader basis upon which s 170LI may operate”.[9]

With rare exceptions, such as with dashes or where ambiguity might otherwise be created, footnotes go after punctuation. Putting them in the wrong place is surprisingly common. Academics seem nearly as likely to think that footnotes go before punctuation as teenagers are to think that apostrophes are needed to create a plural (or apostrophe’s, for victims of the school system over the last decade or so). Most mistakes are made by people whose disciplines use the Harvard author-date system of referencing. In that system the author’s name and the date of publication go inside the punctuation (like this). But clearly even where footnoting is still widely used, such as in legal publications, some people still have the wrong idea.
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