I have a bit of a technical question about constructing narrative while writing as a historian (I guess it also applies to other humanities).

This never really occurred to me as an issue during undergrad and graduate school while writing my thesis, but I have noticed now as I revise my thesis that at times I write sentences that contain both the factual events contained in the primary source I cite in the footnote at the end of the sentence and my interpretation of the source I cite.

For example, if I describe the relation between Event A and Event B, I might first describe the general context. Then follows Sentence A that describes Event A and cites Source A describing Event A. Then follows Sentence B that says:

In reaction (to Event A), Event B happened⁴.

Where Footnote 4 describes Event B.

My question about this example is about the two words “in reaction”. The source I cite at the end of Sentence B does only describe Event B. I derive the connection between the two events and that Event B is a reaction to Event A from the general context. Thus “in reaction” is my interpretation of the causality between the two events.

Now if one is really squeamish I guess one could say that by not separating “in reaction” from Sentence B I mix interpretation and factual evidence and some readers could be misled that the source I cite at the end of Sentence B also includes that Event B happened in reaction to Event A.

The same kind of situation seems to happen at times in my writing when I have a sentence that is built like this:

[Interpretation], [relative clause with factual evidence] [Footnote with evidence for events/facts in relative clause].

My question is whether this style of writing is acceptable at all? It certainly does not occur often in my writing, but it does at times. No one who has read my writing really has ever said anything about this. Although it is hard to check the writing of other historians with regards to this question, as I do not have the sources to check in most cases, I have noticed that other historians do this kind of mixing at times as well (some even seem to simply cite sources at the end of paragraphs that clearly contain both factual statements and interpretation). I also wonder what having to interrupt sentences to clearly separate interpretation and facts all the time would do to the flow of the narrative.

Still this is a concern now, and I would like to know how to approach this dilemma. Is there a convention or best practice? Is mixing interpretation and evidence acceptable, is it sloppy writing or is it completely unacceptable?

Crosspost on Reddit

  • 1
    What about "In reaction (to Event A), Event B⁴ happened.", i.e., move the footnote to just after "Event B"?
    – Matteo
    Apr 16 '18 at 10:19
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    Thanks for the reply. Mmh, that is not really common, at least I have never seen that in a history article/monograph. Also, I don't think that it would necessary make things clearer. Apr 16 '18 at 11:46

Footnotes should be placed in connection to the material that they describe. There is literally no reason other than a style sheet that they can only be at the end of a sentence. If it belongs halfway through the sentence, before you begin interpretation, then put it there, where it makes the most logical sense.

Remember, your writing is what is paramount. Use the tools you have to make your arguments and narrative work, rather than the other way around.

  • 1
    In legal citation, where exact attribution is critical, it is the norm to have citations for every clause (at least). Under such a system, just moving the footnote immediately after "Event B" would make it clear that the first clause was not supported by your footnote, but absent such a discipline-wide understanding you might need to reword to be clear, e.g.: "Event B⁴ then happened in reaction to Event A."
    – 1006a
    Apr 16 '18 at 19:22

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