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. []
Categorized as Geek, Meta

By Jason Coleman

Structural engineer and technical content manager Bentley Systems by day. Geeky father and husband all the rest of time.


  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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