| November 29, 2011 8:34 pm

Sometimes it’s important to be extremely fussy about otherwise inconsequential things. There’s a reason why people fight over the proper pronunciation of már ‘habitation in Quenya (the m takes on an mb sound), pirates versus ninjas, and the proper placement of footnotes. It’s not that any of these particularly matter, but when pronounced, understood, or typeset correctly, such miscellanea greatly enrich the world.

For months, I’ve been distressed about how LaTeX handles footnotes. (Which, to be clear, is much better than how Word handles them.) Notes are used for subordinate details, which provide additional information, insight, and wit. In that role, they provide an important supplement to the main text.

Depending on which type of note you choose to use – foot, end, or side – there are certain rules which govern how they should be typeset. Robert Bringhurst, author of “The Elements of Typographic Style” and the authority on book typography lays it out pretty well:

Footnotes are the very emblem of fussiness, but they have their uses. If they are short and infrequent, they can be made economical of space, easy to find when wanted, and, when not wanted, easy to ignore …

In the main text, superscript numbers are used to indicate notes because superscript numbers minimize interruption. They are typographic asides: small because that is an expression of relative importance, and raised for two reasons: to keep them out of the flow of the main text, and to make them easier to find. In the note itself, the number is not an aside, but a target. Therefore, the number in the note should be full size.1


Unfortunately, this isn’t how LaTeX does it. Instead of having a superscript in the text and a full sized numeral in the notes, it uses superscript for both.2 Not only is it wrong (as far as anything can be wrong in a war of opinions), but it’s really hard to change. Most of the document classes only give you one or two options for the footnotes, and they’re not generally any better than the default. Nor does the heavy of all footnote packages, footmisc, provide a fix. Which means, if you want to adjust the way that the number appears, you have to hack the class at a lower level. (Sigh.)

Unless, you’re using memoir, that is.

It turns out that memoir provides hooks to customize everything about the footnotes. This includes the style, the size of the font, and … the numerical label. (If you’d like, you can even use symbols.) The code below will give you properly formatted references:

  • superscript in the text
  • full sized numeral in the note
  • numeral out-dented into the margin by 1 em
  • note text typeset left flush


The \footmarkstyle macro is used to remove the superscript, \footmarkwidth is the size of the box containing the note label, \footmarksep is how much to offset the numeral from the text.


  1. The footnote is flagged by a superscript in the text, but the note itself is introduced by an outdented figure of the same size for the text of the note. (Taken from “The Elements of Style,” page 69.)

2 Which is, frankly, unsightly and distracting.


One Response to “On the Subject of Notes – Foot, End, and Otherwise”

Ketil Thorgersen wrote a comment on December 11, 2011

Hi Rob

I really enjoy your posts, but I even more enjoy Lyx Outline. Could you please come with a process report someday soon 🙂

All the best!

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