What Is Referencing?

Like the toilet, the footnote enables one to deal with ugly tasks in private; like the toilet, it is tucked genteelly away – often, in recent years, not even at the bottom of the page but at the end of the book. Out of sight, and even out of mind, seems exactly where so banal a device belongs.

 (Anthony Grafton[i])


Referencing is an essential element to any piece of academic prose but questions on referencing in academic work are common, reflecting a great deal of confusion about how to do it. These confusions include the technicalities of correctly annotating references, the ethics of citation, and the various ways in which works can be referred to and used in an argument. There are many style guides for all the different referencing systems available; however, the approach taken here is more holistic. This article will cover a lot of the ‘unsaid’ background to reference, which includes the social conventions that underpin the act of using a citation. Other articles here will follow on and giving a guide to the various referencing systems in use, and we’ll also go beyond the technical detail and discuss how an academic writer can reference previously published work in an appropriate and authoritative way. This means understanding the conventions of typographically presenting references and quotations as well as the mastery of their persuasive effects, which stem from their social uses.

Referencing is a way to refer to texts, and other artefacts, external to the text one is writing or reading. It is an essential characteristic of academic style in any discipline, as it enables writers and readers to efficiently conduct and important task of scholarship: to refer to, as accurately as possible, specific other texts and objects and to discuss them in relation to the topic at hand.

There are many different referencing systems available but they can all be understood as conventionalised typographic systems that use notation in the line of sentence. This is additional to conventional spelling and punctuation of standard written English. Notation in the text corresponds to a longer parenthetical note, either in a reference list, bibliography or note at the foot of the page or at the end of the whole text. Here are two examples of differing referencing system in academic work.

Example 1: Author Date, ‘In line’ or ‘Parenthetical’ System

This example is from John Swales’ book Genre Analysis[ii]. It is an example of a Harvard system, where the reference is in the line of text, enclosed within in brackets (or parenthesis). Hence its alternative names as a system of referencing, as inline and parenthetical referencing systems. (APA is another inline system).


However, especially in these days of massive television coverage, party political speeches may now be being written, structure and delivered in order to generate the maximum amount of applause (Atkinson, 1984).


Atkinson, Max. 1984. Our masters’ voices. London: Methuen.

Whatever is in parenthesis (the brackets), strictly speaking, is not read as part of the text; it is parenthetical to, or outside of, the text. That contained within the brackets corresponds to a reference listed alphabetically in a reference section at the end of the document. Some find this in line placement of the reference distracting when reading but really that comes down to disciplinary styles of reading. If one is familiar with parenthetical references they are easily skimmed over, but having the author’s name and the date in the line of the sentences is very useful to a specialist reader in quickly accessing the accuracy and pertinence of the references used.

Example 2: Footnote or Endnote

Typographically, this is a very different beast to parenthetical references. It also differs in how academic discussion of the reference manifests in the text, or not as the case may be. In the example here, from V.N. Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language[iii], the footnote supports a statement made by the author, just as with the previous Harvard style example; however, notice the more elaborated discussion and multiple references in the footnote.


In view of the fundamental importance of Saussure’s views for the whole second trend and for Russian linguistic thought in particular, we shall consider those views in some detail. Here as elsewhere, to be sure, we shall confine ourselves to basic philosophical-linguistic positions only23.


23. Saussure’s basic theoretical work, published after his death by his students, is Cours de linguistique générale (1916). We shall be quoting from the second edition of 1922. Puzzlingly enough, Saussure’s book, for all its influence, has not as yet been translated into Russian. A brief summary of Saussure’s views can be found in the above-cited article by R. Šorand in an article by Peterson, “Obščaja lingvistika” [General Linguistics], Pecat’ i Revoljucija, 6, 1923.

Not all footnotes and endnotes require this type of additional discussion. As with in line references, the note can simply lay down a supporting citation of a named author, with their publication title and its date and place of publication, and page span if appropriate. Instead of round brackets enclosing the reference in the line, footnote/endnote systems mark the place of a supporting reference with a number, letter or symbol, which corresponds to a note either at the foot of the page, or at the end of the text or portion of the text. The additional attribute of footnotes/endnotes is that they enable the scholar to comment further on the supporting references in a manner parenthetical to the narrative flow of their text. In our example here Vološinov gives us a note of the book by Saussure to which he is referring, but he goes on to do more than this. There is the first publication of Cours de linguistique générale in 1916 but Vološinov tell us he will be referring to the 1922 second edition, which was slightly revised by its editors. This is important in this context because Saussure did not in fact write the Cours de linguistique générale, rather it was put together from his course notes after his death by his colleagues and students. Vološinov then tells us that, at the time of his writing, there was no Russian translation available and that we can find additional comment on Saussure’s views in another scholarly publication.

Both types of reference, whether using parenthesis or a footnote/endnote notation are a way of linking previously published material to the argument at hand, providing additional support to statements and claims made, as well as being a way in which scholarship is demonstrated.

Works Citing List:
[i] Anthony Grafton, ‘The Footnote from de Thou to Ranke’, History and Theory 33(4) (1994) pp. 53-76.

[ii]  John Swales, Genre Analysis (1990 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.47 & p.235).

[iii]  V.N. Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1986, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p59). Translated by Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik.