March 19, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Punctuation and footnotes & pretentious writing

Posted in footnotes, pretentious writing, Punctuation w/footnotes at 8:32 am by dlseltzer


Barthes has further benefited from being translated into English by the extremely able Richard Howard. Barthes titles that were Englished by Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as prolific translator, include Système de la mode (The Fashion System), L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). Chronicles of Higher Education


Tip 1: Punctuation and footnotes

There are two rules to remember about punctuation and footnotes, but when it comes to commas, most of us get RULE 1 wrong. So pay attention to these rules.

RULE 1: When footnotes are included in your publication, grant proposal, or other writing, any punctuation used must go BEFORE the footnote. This holds true whether or not the footnote is superscripted. (The superscript function doesn’t translate well  so there are no superscripts below but imagine that the first two examples for each rule are superscripted.)

While findings have remained constant1, we decided to perform a test to check the results. WRONG

While findings have remained constant,1 we decided to perform a test to check the results. RIGHT

Findings have remained relatively constant over the last 15 years(1). WRONG

Findings have remained relatively constant over the last 15 years.(1) RIGHT

RULE 2: There should not be any space between the footnote and whatever precedes it (punctuation or letter).

The last experiment proved to be the most valuable. 1 WRONG

The last experiment proved to be the most valuable.1 RIGHT

Half of the respondents reported no effect at all; (1) the remainder reported feelings of lethargy. WRONG

Half of the respondents reported no effect at all;(1) the remainder reported feelings of lethargy. RIGHT

That’s all there is to it – just two little rules. Punctuation before but NO space before the footnote.

Tip 2: Pretentious writing

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Last week, we looked at clear and direct writing. This week, we are going to look at something that can keep us from clear and direct writing, and that is pretentious writing.

Maybe William Safire said it best when he wrote: “Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions,” or maybe he said it best when he wrote: “Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.” But I think Mr. Safire said it best when he wrote: “Eschew obfuscation.”

This is what we are striving for in writing; we want to eschew obfuscation, that is, we want to avoid creating confusion.

[NOTE: Full disclosure: I have to admit, I love the word eschew and use it all the time in conversation, but I eschew ‘eschew’ when writing formally.]

But even more than simply avoiding confusion, we strive to make our writing elegant, and elegance in writing involves clarity and precision.

Pretentious writing is often inadvertent and usually stems from a misconception that the use of large and complex words or phrases makes the writer sound knowledgeable. Unfortunately, rather than the writer sounding smarter, pretentious writing often obscures meaning. We don’t want to challenge our readers to see if they can figure out what we are trying to say; we want to make our writing as simple and clear as possible to facilitate the readers’ understanding.

There are particular words and phrases that are unnecessary and should only be used judiciously if at all. I’ve included a few of them below. At the top of the list is utilize:

Leads to pretentious writing A better choice

utilize                            use
aforementioned                     mentioned earlier
allude                                         refer
ameliorate                               improve
approximately                      about
at this moment in time      now, currently
ameliorate                              improve
approximately                     about
commence                             begin
commensurate                    equal
communicate                      talk
comprehend                        understand
concept                                  idea
constitutes                            is
demonstrate                        show
efficacious                            effective
exponential                         fast or great
in spite of the fact that    although
in the near future              soon
informed                              based on
make an adjustment in   adjust
methodology                     method
modify                                 change

obfuscate                            obscure

paradigm                           example or pattern
peruse                                 read
prior to                               before
take into consideration consider
virtually                             almost
within                                   in (thanks, Galen, for this suggestion)

And irregardless is not a pretentious form of regardless, IT IS NOT A WORD AT ALL.

For more words to avoid, see:

Goodman, NW and Edwards, MB. Medical Writing: A prescription for clarity, Third Edition. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006.

Barnard, S, Hughes, KT, St Jamres, D and Health Care Communication Group. Writing, Speaking, and Communication Skills for Health Professionals, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2001.

As an example of pretentious writing (there are other issues in this as well), I offer this piece from an unedited proposal that I was asked to review some time ago (and I am happy to add that it is not one of ours).

This project aims to extend the anthropological analysis of the contemporary production of scientific knowledge of poverty, illness, suffering and violence. While the prioritization of funding for health disparities research has stimulated an unprecedented increase in epidemiological studies of the health and risk-behavior of marginal populations, there has been insufficient ethnographic attention paid to the scientific practices that produce this knowledge. This project seeks to understand how epidemiological categories of ‘at-risk’ populations are constituted; a critical feature of this analysis examines how behavioral epidemiologists and the humans they study interact to produce scientific sexual and drug-use knowledge. This project therefore links anthropology of science attentive to knowledge practices with urban anthropology that foregrounds the subjectivity of stigmatized groups. To understand the relation between the lived experience and social worlds of persons and the scientific practices by and in which they are transformed into a sexual category of risk, the researcher will examine the everyday practice both of behavioral epidemiologists and their human objects of study. Specifically, he will examine the epidemiological analysis a marginal group of people under study, on the one hand, and the epidemiological researchers conducting novel health disparity research, on the other. This “double focus,” necessary for rigorous data collection and analysis, has demanded a similarly dual methodology linking science and technology studies (STS) with contemporary urban anthropology.

I’ll let Samuel Clemens have the last word.

The difference between the almost right word and the right word ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.



  1. David Henderson said,

    As I understand it, when the footnote is applied to a parenthetical or dashed phrase, the footnote should go inside the parentheses/dashes but after any other internal punctuation. Would you agree?

    Fictional examples (using ^x^ to indicate a superscript x):

    The birds’ migratory path–known to locals as the “northern banner”^13^–takes them within three miles of the volcano.

    Camels can lift twice their weight over short distances.^14^ (The strongest recorded camel-lift took place in 1993 in Tunisia, where a 1,400-lb. camel carried 3,200 pounds of lead.^15^)

    Mr. Smith’s books are among the most famous in this area. His 2006 work, _Zombie_Elvis:_An_Unlife_ (which was nominated for a Bulwer-Lytton prize that same year^16^), received the glowing reviews from several notable scientists in the field of necrotic research.^17^


  2. dlseltzer said,


  3. Danielle said,

    Yes, footnotes have to come before a dash.

  4. Dave said,

    Do superscripts work?1

  5. Nikolai Shornikov said,

    Compiling a codex of relative pretentious rankings for every word in English is the height of pretension. I think I prefer a thesaurus to “The Master Quantifier or Word Necessity”. If I needed to pose an argument without aesthetics or arbitrary word choice, I wouldn’t be using English.

    Plus, how would we know to immediately dismiss a pretentious argument if the language disguised it as plainly-stated fact?

    PS. Thanks for clearing up footnote positioning but cite the manual!

  6. plaatsch said,

    I know this is an old discussion, but was hoping someone could clarify something: I know the superscript number comes after the period, but does it come before or after quotation marks?

    • dlseltzer said,

      After the quotation marks because it is not really part of the quote.

      • plaatsch said,

        Thanks! I went with that when I looked up the MLA formatting. APA has their citations after the quotes before the period, but they put the full citation in the text instead of footnoting. So many tiny details!

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