Citation style

I was a TA in the English department in college, and most of my efforts were devoted to correcting grammar, punctuation, and citation style for freshman comp, with the professor providing the actual overall grade. After several years of this, I came to be regarded as the foremost authority on documentation styles on campus — for instance, when the department chair called my citations into question on my honors thesis, literally everyone else in the room said I couldn’t have gotten it wrong. That was a proud moment, akin to when the office manager at the chiropractor’s office where I worked after graduated told me that I was the best data entry clerk she had ever met.

That experience has produced two results:

  1. I have very firm opinions about citation styles.
  2. I realize that it’s an issue not many people pay close attention to.

I would like to discuss these points in turn. First, I have come to believe that parenthetical citations have only very limited utility — mainly for indicating repeated references to a pervasively-cited text in a given chapter or section. That is, it is most useful when it prevents an excessive number of footnotes from cluttering the page; when parentheticals are used for every citation, it produces its own (arguably even worse) form of clutter. Worst of all is the author-date citation system. In the hard sciences and social sciences, it may make sense, since there is a premium on the latest findings. In humanities settings, on the other hand, the requirement to base the citation date on the edition used leads to ridiculous notations like “Aristotle 1991.” The intention is to simplify cross-references with the works cited page, but the actual effect is to require cross-reference to the works cited page — a shortened title would be much more serviceable. So for me, the ideal is footnotes, sometimes announcing parenthetical citations, and using shortened title references after the first reference. I also think that Ibid. and op. cit. are basically a really efficient way to generate inadvertant errors when revising the text leads to a break in the sequence of references and therefore shouldn’t be used.

This brings me to my second point: my years of experience in overanalyzing and overthinking citation style have led me to develop my own hybrid style that reflects all these preferences. Given my detail-orientation, my use of this style is absolutely consistent, and as a result, I almost never get called out on it, even though it fails to match up to any given publisher’s style sheet. (Admittedly, if a journal insists on parenthetical citations, I can’t get away with it — but if they accept footnotes, I’m home free.) Both Zizek and Theology and Politics of Redemption are in “Kotsko style.” In fact, Politics of Redemption represents perhaps my greatest citation-style triumph yet, as they took the increasingly rare step of allowing me to use footnotes rather than endnotes.

Obviously I’m reveling in this deeply meaningful victory, but I’m worried that it’s all downhill from here — that some shift in the publishing industry as a whole will lead to the abolition even of endnotes, forcing me to litter my subsequent works with references to “Augustine 1947” and “Aquinas 1982” and “Moses et al. 2010.” At that point, the only option may prove to be suicide.

12 thoughts on “Citation style

  1. Full agreement. As someone who reads a lot of social scientific stuff parentheticals are incredibly frustrating – you want to know what paper they are ‘calling’ into their argument, since it might be a paper you would be interested in reading. Instead it takes a trip to the bibliography and moment of translation as you say. Why???? The amount of papers that have led me to other papers is huge, but the time taken to do this would have been significantly shorter had they used footnotes like any sane person. Unbelievably irritating.

  2. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at least agrees with you about “Aristotle 1991”:

    Please note that we strive to eliminate the use of dates that would mislead the reader into thinking that work is published much later. So please avoid such anachronisms as “Plato 1962”, “Locke 1950”, etc. Instead, in the case of works of Plato, Aristotle, etc., for which publications dates are not known, please just cite the title of the work. E.g., In a sentence discussing one of Plato’s dialogues, you can simply cite “(Parmenides, 132a-b)”, and then list this in the Bibliography as:

    * Plato, Parmenides, in Plato: Complete Works, J. Cooper and D. Hutchinson (eds.), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

    Similarly, cite sections of Locke’s Essay by section number rather than by page number, so that those with other editions can find the passage you cite. So, for example, to cite Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, you could refer to it as “Locke 1689” in the text (using the original year of publication), and then include the following listing in the Bibliography:

    * Locke, J., 1689, Two Treatises of Government, in P. Laslett (ed.), Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

  3. I recently had to change a chapter of my dissertation that is being published in a forthcoming book (the article is on “God” in Paul Tillich’s thought) from footnotes to parentheticals. The problem with this is that at this point the citation apparatus ceases really to be useful beyond simply offering a citation. And in my dissertation I was really trying to be sure I was engaging every possible resource on the subject–which was a good academic exercise but doesn’t translate into anything anyone beyond my committee might care to see.

    We’ve all read books and thinkers who have made an art out of their citation sytle, where the notes are really helpful–take a look at DG Lehay’s notes or David Tracy’s–and I recently read one of the “classic” works on American Masonic philosophy where I found the footnotes to be a real pleasure to read, where the author sometimes indulged us on whet he really thought. I suppose it depends on the writing style and aims of the text itself.

  4. Ben’s quote kind of make sense, but only really if already discussing Aristotle. You get the same anachronistic problem with more recent translations too: Fanon 2004.

    As a stylistic technique, every now and again, I like to take certain phrases from famous passages in well known texts and re-work them for a knowing audience in a new context. In these cases parenthesis really mucks things up.

    If things really do come to the worst, rather than suicide, we can always revive Benjamin’s art of citation w i t h o u t citation, no?

  5. Brad, of course, this assumes that one made sense of the main text. But I have found his footnotes to be helpful, at least for what I have been able to comprehend, which is far less than the numerical stuff.

  6. Adam,

    Our house style (at Wipf & Stock) is close to what you prefer, but we combine short-form footnotes with a comprehensive bibliography. Since all publication data is available in the bibliography, we keep it off the page by abbreviating all footnotes, including the first instance, since the reader knows where to go to find the full title, author’s first name, publisher, location, publication date etc. Without a bibliography, you’ve got to put the publication data somewhere, but the reader has to remember where the first instance is if s/he wants to access it, which is cumbersome.

    I think this combination makes for the most readable books with the most flexible and accessible apparatus.

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