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I teach a course in remedial academic writing. The students should learn to write at the graduate level.

Some of the students are ELLs. They tend to include many extraneous thoughts and ideas in their essays that do not directly contribute to their thesis statements. These extra ideas are present in writing from their home countries, but seem quite unusual for academic writing in English-speaking countries. I've tried discouraging this, however, they seem determined to keep such extra points in their essay. I thought an acceptable compromise would be to let them move these into footnotes. From a typical essay, their 500-word, 5-paragraph essays would have 3 or 4 footnotes each.

  • Is that acceptable practice in academic writing for writers to throw any kind of extra thoughts about a subject into footnotes?
  • Are there limits to what kind of extra thoughts can appear in footnotes?
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    A great fiction example would be in the earlier Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. :) – April Apr 23 at 12:37
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The answer is: It's up to you, and it depends on the context. I normally wouldn't chime in on academic writing, since we have experts here in APA and MLA, but this question seems to involve none of the usual academic style guides.

To back up a little:

What are often called "footnotes" are, in academic writing, meant to do one of a couple of things: (1) Clarify a point without interrupting the flow of the main text, or (2) serve as a mechanism for citations. (i.e., the citation will be in a footnote.)

But this is how footnotes are used when following an academic style guide or departmental style sheet. In the context of your class, much depends on whether the essays your students are generating are on academic topics or a personal ones. In an academic context, having "additional thoughts" in footnotes could be seen as extraneous and amateurish. However, in a personal essay written for a class, "additional thoughts" might do well in footnotes. (Some writers have used footnotes in this manner in fiction.)

Finally, keep in mind that conventions used in other languages may not be relevant in English, and you might decide to be firm with your students if these essays are on strict academic topics. But I assume these are not theses or academic papers for publication, where the formatting of citations and footnotes/endnotes is rigidly defined. Being close to the material, you can use your judgment to set guidelines for your students.

(If you do decide to allow this, I suggest letting your students bound for academia know about how footnotes are used in strict academic contexts.)

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In my own reading, in books by such varied authors as Thomas Sowell (Example: Basic Economics), Jane Jacobs (Example: The Nature of Economies), and C.S. Lewis (Example: The Abolition of Man), there are footnotes referring to notes on each chapter in the back of the book, appendix-like.

In this format the author often expands upon or backs up concepts or situations only alluded to briefly in the regular text. This could scale down to a "single-chapter" essay, and certainly has precedent. I'm by no means an academic myself, but I would accept it as natural.

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