Skip to Main Content

“The mission of Ranger College is to transform lives and give students the skills to be a positive influence in their communities.”


When to use footnotes

This part of the footnote guidance is probably the most difficult.  There are not many hard rules here, but a basic guideline is EVERYTHING.

What kind of things should you footnote?

There are at least four reasons to cite your sources:

  1. To give credit
  2. To assure readers about the accuracy of your facts
  3. To show readers the research tradition that informs your work
  4. To help readers follow or extend your work[1]

In any class there is a presumption that much of the material is new to you and many of the ideas you will be sharing are not your original thoughts.  You will also be informing your readers of a wide variety of statistics, numbers, figures, details, and precise data of many kinds.  All of those very specific types of information require you identify the source.

The following contains some additional details and examples about the kinds of information that will require footnotes.

[1]  Kate L. Turabian et al., A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 8th ed./rev. by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff, Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, 136.


Every time you use a statistic you had to get it from somewhere.  Statistics are the most overused and manipulated pieces of information in existence.  Virtually any statistic can be made to sound the way the author wants it to by a simple manipulation of words.  Consider this:

The new drug XYZ saved 1 in 5 of the cancer patients that were certain to die.

80% of the patients treated with the drug XYZ died a horrible death within six months.

The truth is that both statements have the exact same statistic.  As readers we shouldn’t be casting around trying to figure out where you got your information and what processes were used to calculate it.  We should be able to go right to it to determine how we were manipulated – one way or the other.


Figures and numbers almost always require a footnote.  “Almost,” you say, with eyebrows raising.  “Why almost?”

Some numbers are so well established they are considered common knowledge – years for example.  In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  No one needs to confirm that or prove that with a citation.  There are exceptions, of course.  There are always exceptions.

Inconsistencies:  Explain them all.  Smithwick says 1785, while Jones says 1787.  Then put the footnotes for each.[1]  You can put two footnotes in one with a semicolon.  This happens a lot with troop counts.

Most numbers, however, are not commonly known pieces of information and you are expected to prove how you came by your information.  This is particularly important when you are trying to make a point.  You cannot simply use qualifying words like many, frequently, a lot, or sometimes.  Even worse is the use of specific qualifying words like always and never.  Words like that are indicators that you are writing an opinion and did not do any actual researchQualifying words are not acceptable.

If you say the Sherman’s Army never stopped in its march on Atlanta, you better have a citation that proves it.

Research includes quantifying words.  Sherman’s Army spent seven days at Chattanooga waiting for resupply.[2]

Remember the difference is quantity versus quality.  One can proven, the other cannot.

Clear credit

Photos, podcasts, video clips, and other media are commonly used in our work today.  Most people allow academic use of their work when proper credit is given.  For ordinary academic use, like you will be doing in most college classes, citations are enough.  If you want to publish your work, special permission must be received from the creator. 

Proving a position

Justify statements that do not comply with normal and expected points of view.  Prove your position.  This is an academic environment and, as such, we are expected to explore a variety of ideas.  You may encounter points of view that are outside the mainstream point of view.  In every subject there are alternative ideas and philosophies.  You may often encounter older books with points of view that have now been proven untrue because of science and archaeology.  At the opposite end, new and unproven ideas that are still being challenged exist.  Always remember that society is a fluid, changing daily.  The points of view you may find in older works may not be compatible with today’s perspectives.

You may not know how to tell the difference between a commonly accepted standard and something that is unusual, new, or outdated.  By always providing a source for your information and the idea, it does not matter.  Your point can be proven and justified (and if you have found something truly wacky, your professor can explain to you why).

Quotes and Paraphrases

Quotes require quote marks at the beginning and end of the exact quotation.  They do not relieve you of the obligation to write the paper yourself.  A paraphrase is so similar to a quote that it is undeniable who the original author is but different enough that it cannot be placed in quotes.  You may need to rephrase it to change to past or present tense or to split the sentence into parts for clarity or many other reasons.  The ideas remain those of the original author, however, and credit must be given.  Rephrasing it just so you don’t have to use quotation marks is not a good reason.  Filling a paper with quotes is plagiarism, whether you paraphrase or use quotation marks.  Using quotes means you did not do the work of synthesis.

Secondary sources should always be analyzed and incorporated into a paper.  Only primary sources should be quoted.  Quotes should only be used in cases where it is important to indicate a specific person said a specific thing.  It is unique to them and important to the paper that person said it.  Secondary sources offer explanations and understanding, not impact.

This follows on to the next category.  It is one of the most challenging.

When necessary

Oh, the horrible, meaningless, catch-all category that will hold anything the professor wants it to.  Hopefully this guide will contain a few examples that will help you understand.  To start, here is the category that catches most students, the opinion.

Your opinion

Even in a compare/contrast your research should contain events and facts and dates and numbers.  Unless you are specifically asked what you think research is really not filled with speculation or what ifs.  At the beginning of your research you do not have enough information to form opinions.  By the end of the research, you may have opinions, but most papers are going to require presentation of facts.

If you choose to have opinions, you need to have evidence to support them.  You formed your opinion somehow, right?  Demonstrate how.

When you encounter an opinion question it is also going to ask WHY.  You will be expected to offer evidence to support the opinions presented.

When the information is not commonly known

This is where the footnotes start to add up, but it doesn’t matter how many you have.  It matters when they are missing.  You are not allowed to use tertiary sources because they only provide common, overview type information.  If it is in quora, Britannica, or thoughtco, it probably doesn’t need a citation.  You are looking for WHY, which is typically found in journal articles.  For the WHY you will need the citation.

Ideas that belong to someone else

To a certain extent, this is what you are striving for in your work.  You have read and studied and understand what it means.  Now you have to write it out to explain it to the rest of us.  Those thoughts and ideas you are sharing came from somewhere, even when you synthesize multiple bits of information.  Be sure the source of your new-found knowledge gets credit. 

Basic guidelines:

Every time you make a declarative statement, you need a citation.  You should be making at least one declarative statement per paragraph.  Otherwise, there would be no point in writing the paragraph.  Expressions like ‘due to,’ ‘as a result of,’ ‘since,’ and ‘because’ are clear indicators you need a citation. 

What this means in practical terms is that pretty much everything you say will end up with a citation.

[1]  Smithwick, Noah, The Evolution of a State, Austin, TX: The Steck Company, 1935; Ernest Jones, Papers on Psycho-Analysis : Jones, Ernest, 1879-1958 , accessed January 22, 2017,

[2]  I do not have source for this.  I made it up to make a point.

Other things you need to know:

Manipulating text

The meaning of text can be manipulated by both what is said and what is not said.  When you choose what part of an article or book to cite you are choosing to manipulate your reader into a certain position, opinion, or attitude.  Ensure you include full information, even if it does not agree with the point you want to make.

On the other side of that, when you are conducting your research you need to be aware that just as you can leave material out in order to make your point so the authors you are reading could have done the same thing.  Authors may choose to select only a portion of the material or only the ‘right’ statistic in order to make their point.  By stopping a sentence at a particular point a different impression is made than by continuing it to its completion.  When, you, as scholars, are conducting research, you have a duty to go back to the original source and read the material around what you find in your source.  If the author you are reading has not provided sources, you have to ask why he does not want to be reviewed.

This web page may provide further information:

What NOT to footnote:

This is a hard choice.  In general, as you conduct your research you will notice repeated themes and similar information covered across all the sources.  Tertiary sources will contain only this type of information.  When you are writing, that is the general background information that will form the foundation of your paper and can usually be considered common enough knowledge that it does not need to be footnoted.  Read enough to determine what the standard, common information is.  If you read something that is different from the rest, question why.

When you add a specific piece of data, a statistic or figure, that is the place to insert your footnote (actually the end of that sentence is the place).

Information may be put into a paper without a footnote or some kind of documentation only if it meets the following conditions:  It may be found in several books on the subject AND it is not paraphrased from any particular source.  These factors create the condition of belonging to common knowledge.

Generally, if you write while looking at a source or while looking at notes taken from a source, a footnote should be given. 

Please contact us at 254-647-1414 or