Footnotes Are As Real As The Writer

I happened across this short post on Daring Fireball today and quickly got swept down the ‘Jon Gruber’s Footnotes’ rabbit hole. I think semantic web pages are a noteworthy goal, just as I appreciate proper typography. However, I don’t get all hung up about it like these guys1 seem to. I use the WordPress plugin written by Simon Elvery with some tiny modifications. It works very well and, apparently like Gruber, was essentially the look and behavior I was after. It had been on my site to-do list for a long time and I was thrilled when I had found that Elvery had done 99% of the work for me (I love you, lazy web). Reading all this, I think it’s pretty clear that Elvery copied a lot of what Gruber had done, but I don’t know that.

Here is a short post I had written back in April but never got around to hitting publish on (apparently l care about this less than even I realized):

I have just been looking over the working draft of the HTML 5 standards and I’m really glad to see a lot of semantic tags for making sense of writing on the web. However, it really is apparent that this was written by design-oriented authors, not technical authors. No <footnote> or <reference> tags which would be so handy to people who write technical or research publications online (go open science, go!). Just a couple of things you could cobble together (like <aside> with the predefined note class). However, what’s the point of semantic meanings if you aren’t really using them for their meanings? What’s the difference between using a table for design layout versus using an aside as a footnote reference? They’re both incorrect as far as I can tell, and for the same reasons. I’ll continue to use my hacked together <footnote>‘s here at super-structure, although it’s not really a big deal for me. For people who really do want to publish researched journal articles online for review, it should be and they’re going to have to continue to hack together a ‘look’ just to get what they need.

Now, anyone is welcome to come and rip me on my lack of understanding of semantic web design. Here’s the bigger point: if lots of writers want to use footnotes, but the argument against them seems to be that they aren’t part of HTML, then why not add them? Do we want HTML and XHTML to be so general as to not include something as specific as "footnote?" That seems a bit odd to me, personally. More to the point, it seems like limitation of the coding language driving the way we write, which is a bad thing. As I understand semantic coding, it should be structured around what people write, not the other way around. Like others, I’m glad to see that footnotes are something that other people think about (and had the initiative to push "Publish" in the blog software). However, I think the notion of ‘how can we hack together current HTML to do this’ is the wrong approach2.

As for Gruber’s use of the down-and-back-the-left glyph, I use it, too. Mainly because it reminds me of the "return key" symbol on many older keyboards. That makes about as much sense as "straight up" the page does as far as I can tell, as there’s little reason a footnote has to be somewhere directly below the text it is a reference for. Gruber hardly invented footnotes, nor do I gather he makes remotely that claim. The link-back-to-where-you-were is kind of enshrined in the whole HTML idea, but it was a tidy implementation. My understanding of the history of blog footnotes indicates that Gruber deserves the credit for a good, if not earth-shattering idea.

  1. "These guys" being the web design community. Is it possible to be too passionate for your work, especially when said work isn’t life-critical?
  2. Such as using the <small> tag, which speaks to appearance but not the semantic meaning of a footnote, in my opinion. How (or where) it is displayed is not as important as the intrinsic nature of a footnote: this information is referenced or tangential to some other information. The <cite> element could be used to address the nature of references, but not tangential information or extended parenthetical thoughts, which is a common usage outside of the scientific or legal realm or writing.

3 thoughts on “Footnotes Are As Real As The Writer

  1. How about being honest and calling what Gruber uses endnotes? They aren’t footnotes; they don’t appear on the same distinct pages the references do, as there is only one page.

  2. No intention here of being dishonest. You’re correct in that they occur at the end of the article, as do mine. However, I’d think of endnotes as occurring at the end of the page and being cumulative for all articles on that page (there’s no reason someone couldn’t do it that way, just slightly different code). I think the issue here is, the arbitrary issue of “page” which generally defined a footnote is different online and can be done away with all together. If “endnote” seems more applicable, then I have no problem calling them that.

  3. Going back and reading this after Joe’s comment, I made a general mistake in my approach. I tried to address too related but very different things above:

    1. The lack of footnotes/endnotes being addressed in the language of the web.
    2. Jon Gruber’s contribution to how footnotes are handled.

    The first is the bigger issue to me. That is not really reflected in the post title, as it indirectly references Joe Clark’s post title. I should have been less catchy with my post title and it was particularly fair to Mr. Clark to make it seem that way.

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