Footnotes Before or After Punctuation? (Comma and Period)

Footnotes introduce superscript numbers or symbols to your writing. It allows your reader to refer to something later that might give them a source or way to understand something in your writing. This article will explain how to punctuate footnotes.

Footnotes Before or After Punctuation?

Footnotes are always placed after punctuation when referring to a whole sentence or quotation in your writing. The only time you wouldn’t place them after punctuation is if the footnote only refers to a single word. This is most apparent in The Oxford Guide to Style.

Footnotes Before or After Punctuation

Most famous style guides, like AP Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Oxford Guide to Style, agree that footnotes come after punctuation like this:

  • I did not know what to tell her about The Southern Event.1

As you can see, “1” is used as the footnote reference. You must place it after the period. It should not come directly after “Event.”

The only exception is if there’s a specific word you want to refer the reader to rather than the sentence as a whole:

  • The capacities3 and the liabilities4 should be featured here.

Since only one word is being referenced, it’s common to place a footnote after the word rather than the punctuation.

Footnotes Before or After Comma?

Footnotes should always come after commas. This allows you to stick to the most common style guides when trying to figure out the best place to put them.

The only time they would come before a comma is if the footnote refers to one word rather than most of the sentence.

  • We do not know what to do about the service,2 but we’re looking into it.
  • You could have mentioned “they thought about the war,”3 instead of worrying about whatever else you said.

Footnotes Before or After Period?

Footnotes should always come after a period or full stop when included at the end of a sentence. There is a bit of debate about this one, depending on the style guide used.

The debate comes from footnoting specific words. For example:

  • I did not go to The Bank1 or The Cliff2.

Here, we are met with an interesting problem. The footnotes are used to reference single entities within the sentence, but one of those entities comes at the end of the sentence.

According to The Oxford Guide to Style, it’s good practice to write it in the same way as the example. This means that the footnote number comes before the period, even though it is at the end of the sentence.

However, these rules are not clarified in The Chicago Manual of Style (and other American English style guides). It’s much more likely to come across the following situation:

  • I did not go to The Bank1 or The Cliff.2

This becomes an ambiguity. “1” refers to “The Bank,” and “2” is supposed to refer to “The Cliff.” However, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, “2” should refer to the sentence as it comes after the period.

Outside of this situation, all style guides agree that footnotes should come after periods like this:

  • We could have referenced the Enigma.3
  • I told them that the King wasn’t going to make it.3

Footnotes Before or After Quotation Marks?

Quotation marks allow you to include a quote or reference to a source in your writing. You should always include a footnote after quotation marks once you have closed the quotation.

This will help the reader to know what the full quotation is. They can then reference the footnote if they want to learn more about the quotation used.

Here are some examples to show you how it looks:

  • They mentioned that “the serotonin was too strong.”3
  • I told them, “you can’t put it out from inside the house.”6

You should also place a footnote after a quotation, even if it doesn’t come at the end of a sentence:

  • “What if things were made easier”2 was the topic of discussion today.

Footnotes Before or After Colon?

You can place footnotes after colons, though it’s uncommon for a colon to need a footnote. Most people would wait to place the footnote until the end of the list that comes after the colon.

For example:

  • We thought about three options: go back, push through, or find someone else.1

Here, the footnote comes after the colon, but it also waits for the list to end. It ends up coming after a period instead.

If you think the clause before the colon needs to be footnoted, you may write it like this:

  • What about if we tried one of these options from the book:2 shipping or mooning?

Footnotes Before or After Semicolon?

You should place a footnote after a semicolon if you want to reference the clause before the semicolon.

A semicolon acts in a similar way to a period, so it’s likely that you’re ending an independent clause when using one. That’s why the footnote comes after.

  • We could have tried harder if we followed the rules;3 therefore, we need to work on our decisions.

Footnotes Before or After Question Mark?

Question marks are used to end sentences in a questioning manner. They are another form of punctuation mark, meaning footnote rules don’t change. You should place a footnote after a question mark when used.

These examples should help you with question marks:

  • Are you going to read the novel?2
  • Are you happy with the results of the study?3

Footnotes Before or After Exclamation Mark?

Finally, exclamation marks might need to be footnoted. You can place the footnote after the exclamation mark to source the sentence as a whole.

Here are some examples to show you how it’s done:

  • We could have learned from the teachings yesterday!1
  • I should have tried harder and listened to him!1

Final Thoughts

All English style guides agree that footnotes should come after punctuation marks. This is done when referring to the sentence and providing a source for the information. The only time they don’t come after punctuation is if you want to source a single word or phrase.