Understanding Chicago-Style Notes and Bibliography Entries

Sections 14.20 and 14.21 in the Spotlight

Chicago’s main system for citing sources—and the subject of chapter 14 of CMOS—consists of numbered notes in the text and a corresponding list of sources in a bibliography.

This system is very flexible. It easily adapts to any kind of source you can describe, from a book to a TV episode on Netflix, which makes it popular with historians and other writers in the humanities.

This flexibility starts with the notes.

Notes Are Sentences

A numbered note—whether it’s a footnote or an endnote,* and whether it consists of one word or a long paragraph—provides a running commentary on the text. Its basic format is the sentence.

For example, let’s say you refer in your text to Me, the memoir by Elton John that was published in 2019 in London by Macmillan, and specifically to page 279, where the author reveals his fear that he would accidentally sing the original lyrics to “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales, whose death in 1997 had been the occasion for a new version of the song—originally recorded in 1973 for the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe.

Believe it or not, you’ve just cited a book.

But as that awkward and unwieldy sentence demonstrates, it’s not practical to cite your sources in the main text—at least not in full. Nor is it a good idea to try to fit every last detail into your narrative.

That’s where notes come in. The idea is to put some of that information in a note:

Elton John reveals in his memoir his fear that he would accidentally sing the original lyrics to “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales, whose death in 1997 had been the occasion for a new version of the song.1

______________

1. Elton John, Me (London: Macmillan, 2019), 279. The original version of the song, recorded in 1973 for the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, paid tribute to Marilyn Monroe.

As that example demonstrates, a note can consist of more than one sentence. That first sentence may not look like one, but it is—one in which “See” is understood: “See Elton John, Me (London: Macmillan, 2019), 279.”

Even a very short note, like this one—which shows how to cite Me after it’s already been cited (see CMOS 14.30)—is a sentence (again with “See” understood).2

2. John, Me, 281.

If you can write a sentence, you already know how to construct a Chicago-style footnote.

Like any sentence, a Chicago-style note starts with a capital letter and ends with a period; within the note, commas, parentheses, and colons are used as needed to organize the elements.

If you can write a sentence, you already know how to construct a Chicago-style footnote—whether you get help adding the details from a program like Zotero or EasyBib or write it from scratch.

Abbreviations and Omissions

You may have noticed that the Elton John notes cite “279” and “281” rather than “p. 279” and “p. 281.”

Before we go any further—and in case you were wondering—it is acceptable to include “p.” (or plural “pp.”) in a note. Such an abbreviation follows Chicago style (see CMOS 10.3), and terms that are spelled out in the text are often abbreviated in parentheses or notes.

But to keep repetition to a minimum—an important consideration for academic monographs, which may cite hundreds of sources—Chicago style allows you to omit some of the more obvious details. Just be consistent (hint: your editor will be more than happy to help with this).

Now let’s apply what we’ve learned to citing a journal article.

More Practice with Notes—Citing Journal Articles

Citing a journal article is like citing a book, except for some of the publication details.

Let’s say you write that the social and cultural historian Phil Withington cautions against “relying on literary materials to demonstrate what people did, said, and consumed in coffeehouses,” and you direct readers to page 48 of “Where Was the Coffee in Early Modern England?,” an article published in March 2020 in volume 92, issue number 1, of the Journal of Modern History and available via https://doi.org/10.1086/707339.

Congratulations, you’ve cited another source.

But you’ve probably also put some of your less caffeinated readers to sleep. As we saw with the examples featuring Elton John’s memoir, source info belongs in a note:

Social and cultural historian Phil Withington cautions against “relying on literary materials to demonstrate what people did, said, and consumed in coffeehouses.”1

______________

1. “Where Was the Coffee in Early Modern England?,” Journal of Modern History 92, no. 1 (March 2020): 48, https://doi.org/10.1086/707339.

Again, to reduce repetition, a note abbreviates or omits information that might normally be spelled out: not only is “p.” omitted but “number” becomes “no.” and “volume” or “vol.” is also omitted.

Note also that in this case the author’s name has been left out of the note because it appears in the text. This approach works best for footnotes; in an endnote it can be helpful to repeat such information.

Finally, the URL at the end of the note is based on a Digital Object Identifier, or DOI. A DOI, which forms a persistent URL and is listed along with many journal articles (and some books), is preferable to the URL in a browser’s address bar and should be recorded for articles consulted online. For more details, see CMOS 14.8.

Bibliography Entries: All about the Period

If the basic structure of a note is the sentence, think of a bibliography entry as a series of fields—for author, title, facts of publication, and other details. Each field is separated by a period; commas, parentheses, and colons provide additional structure as needed.

So whereas a note describes a source (usually in terms of a specific location in the text), a bibliography entry records the details in a more structured way—and as part of an alphabetical list (ordered by first-listed authors’ last names) that readers can use to assess your research.†

Let’s look at the two sources we cited in text and notes above. Here’s what their entries would look like in a bibliography:

John, Elton. Me. London: Macmillan, 2019.

Withington, Phil. “Where Was the Coffee in Early Modern England?Journal of Modern History 92, no. 1 (March 2020): 40–75. https://doi.org/10.1086/707339.

Note the use of periods (highlighted here for emphasis): Author. Title. Facts of publication. URL.

Note also that the question mark at the end of the title of the journal article stands in for a period—but not for a comma, as we saw in the previous section (and see CMOS 14.96).

Otherwise, a bibliography entry is similar to a note that cites a source in full.

Now that we know so much, let’s apply our knowledge to a source that isn’t a book or a journal article.

The Art of Description

How would you cite “San Junipero,” the fourth episode of the third season of the dystopian British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror? That episode, directed by Owen Harris and written by Charlie Brooker, was first shown on October 21, 2016, on Netflix. For example, you might want to discuss the reveal at 38:42 (where we find out . . . never mind: we wouldn’t want to spoil it for you).

Congratulations, you’ve just cited your third source.

But again, it’s easier to put most of the details about the source in a note, like this:

At a little more than halfway into the episode, we learn . . . 1

______________

1. Black Mirror, season 3, episode 4, “San Junipero,” directed by Owen Harris, written by Charlie Brooker, aired October 21, 2016, on Netflix, 38:42.

A shortened note would look like this (citing a scene from earlier in the same episode).2

2. “San Junipero,” 6:01–7:45.

The bibliography entry would look like this:

Owen Harris, dir. Black Mirror. Season 3, episode 4, “San Junipero.” Written by Charlie Brooker. Aired October 21, 2016, on Netflix. 1:01:24.

But Chicago-style citations are flexible. For example, you don’t have to include total time of the episode in your bibliography entry. And it’s your choice whether to cite the writer—or the actors and other contributors (see CMOS 14.261).

Just remember to record essential information.

For most sources, essential information will consist of any author(s) or other creator(s), title, and publication details—enough to uniquely identify the source in such a way that your readers will be able to consult exactly what you consulted (though maybe not without a Netflix subscription and a trip to a library or bookstore).


* A footnote appears at the foot of a page; an endnote appears at the end of an article, a chapter, or a book. This note is an endnote because it appears at the end of this post. For more on footnotes versus endnotes, see CMOS 14.43–48.

† If you’ve cited your sources in full in the notes, you may not need a bibliography. But a bibliography is an asset for readers (see CMOS 14.61), and if you’re a student it may be required.

Top image: Microsoft’s Segoe UI Emoji font rendering of Foot and Musical Note.

Are you a student? Students will find more information about source citations and paper formatting here.

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