[whatwg] Footnotes, endnotes, sidenotes

David Walbert dwalbert at learnnc.org
Tue Oct 31 07:20:02 PST 2006

On Oct 31, 2006, at 9:30 AM, James Graham wrote:

> I think and distinction between footnotes, sidenotes and endnotes  
> is basically presentational and whilst we should try to ensure that  
> markup+CSS can create all three appearances we shouldn't treat them  
> distinctly.

Footnotes and endnotes are identical in content in the context of a  
print document and I am not certain how they'd differ even  
presentationally on a web page, so yes, I think those can be  
considered identical in terms of markup.

"Sidenotes," though, is ambiguous. If the term refers to footnotes  
that happen to be placed beside the text, then yes, they're identical  
semantically to footnotes. But "sidenotes" may also refer to "pull  
quotes" or "callouts" -- some small piece of text to be highlighted  
rather than additional explanatory information of the sort that would  
appear in a sidebar or footnote. Or, if "sidenote" refers to what is  
usually called a "sidebar," then we're talking about something that  
is both more extensive than the typical footnote and of greater  
importance relative to the main text -- its position on the side of  
the page is rather than at the bottom is not merely presentational  
but is indicative of the weight of the content. Moreover, a callout  
or sidebar is not a numbered or marked reference and need not be  
referred from a precise location within the text -- whereas a  
footnote or endnote relates to a specific word, sentence, or  
paragraph, a sidebar/callout/pullquote relates more vaguely to a more  
general section of text, or in the case of some sidebars, to the full  

So while markup for footnotes/endnotes could be standardized fairly  
easily (in as much as writing standards is ever easy), I don't even  
know where I would begin to define sidenotes semantically. As I've  
used them in print and on the web, they'd need to relate to (1) a  
header, and therefore to the section of text underneath it; or (2) a  
paragraph, list, or other defined block of text. But a sidebar might  
need to contain block-level formatting (and even multiple paragraphs  
and potentially headers), which means it couldn't be placed inside  
one of those elements.

I don't know how many people would actually use magazine-style  
sidebars and callouts on the web -- I would, and probably a lot of  
newspaper and magazine publishers would, if there were a convenient  
way to do it. (I already do use pullquotes, but with some complicated  
markup to make them, I hope, accessible and semantically meaningful.)  
On the other hand lots of web authors do and would use footnotes/ 
endnotes. So I am not sure how much effort it would be worth putting  
into markup for sidebars/callouts.

David Walbert
dwalbert at learnnc.org

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