What’s the Matter with ibid.?

Editing / Style

The Latin word ibidem, better known these days by its short form ibid., is one of the technical tools of academic writing and editing. Literally meaning "in the same place," it's used in footnotes and endnotes to mean that a note refers to the same source as the previous note. This little bit of Latin has long been a way of inducting a writer (in high school or early post-secondary studies) into a circle of those who can use a technical tool impenetrable to people not in the know. It's a small thrill, maybe, but academics get their kicks where they can.


But ibid.’s demise has been announced many times. For instance, page 205 of the very first edition of the MLA Style Manual (1985) confidently announces that “ibid. is no longer used.” The little abbreviation has persisted despite this. But the greatest blow so far to poor ibid. comes from the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (the 17th), up until now the strongest supporter of its use. Section 14.34 declares that “in a departure from previous editions Chicago discourages the use of ibid.” Now frowned upon by two of the major style guides, ibid.’s future seems uncertain.


What’s the matter with ibid.?


Age Is No Excuse

Ibidem certainly has a venerable history. The official Latin-English dictionary (Cassel’s) tells us the word was used by Plautus, Cicero, Juvenal, and Virgil; Cicero used it figuratively, too, to mean “at that moment” or “in the same manner.” At one point, these dead men’s names would have been unavoidable parts of a school education in Canada, as a good British colony. But times have changed. One argument against the use of ibid. is that, as the MLA Style Center’s “Ask the MLA” editors put it, “the days of expecting an educated person to know Latin and Greek are over. Outside of legal and a few other specialist contexts, ibid.’s Latinate referencing cousins, op. cit. and loc. cit., have been frowned on for some time for the same reason.


 (A quick office poll showed that 50% of those asked had studied Latin in school, but our four-person sample is probably not representative of a broader public.)


Too Confusing


The other main argument against ibid. is that it can be overly confusing for a reader. This was recognized as early as the first edition of the Chicago Manual, which recommended against using ibid. in the first footnote of a verso (left-hand) page, where it would require the reader to turn back to the previous page to see what reference is meant. (The advice against page-turning has been happily ignored by generations of undergraduate students.) The decline in favour of op. cit., which refers the reader back to the last cited work by the same author, followed a similar logic.

The argument now seems to be that any use of ibid. is potentially confusing. One can sense an almost personal frustration in this comment from section 14.48 of the Chicago Manual 17th edition: “At least some readers may have forgotten whether the note number was 93 or 94 by the time they find it at the back of the work. It is particularly annoying to arrive at the right place in the endnotes only to find another ibid.


Chicago’s online FAQ puts it even more bluntly: the requirement that “the reader see or recall the last source” (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Documentation/faq0010.html) is “an inconvenience we feel outweighs the minor space gain” (ibid.).


(See what I did there? That’s a nice example of a frowned-upon use of ibid. – it actually uses more space than simply putting the URL once, after the second quotation.)



Saving Space?

Conserving space has been the main argument in favour of ibid. (at least apart from the thrill of knowing secret terminology, which doesn’t seem to be discussed in the reference guides). In an era of manual typesetting or handwritten manuscripts, not having to repeat a full sentence could be a valuable savings of time and effort. In the current era, the main space concern is about the number of printed lines (since paper is still paid for by the sheet). Ibid., the argument goes, is not particularly useful in this situation, as a short citation — involving, for example, the author’s last name, a shortened title of the work, and a page number — should not take up more than a line.


Converting an ibid. to a short citation in works that repeatedly reference the same source (this happens a lot in studies of literature, for example) is usually a question of changing a narrow list of one ibid. after another in a series of notes to a somewhat thicker list using the “Author, Book” style. And while this writer might prefer the graceful look of those towers of ibid., a personal aesthetic taste doesn’t seem like enough to outweigh other concerns.



In addition, changes to how writing happens may make ibid. obsolete. More and more writers use bibliography software that generates citations for them, and it is no easier or more difficult for software to generate a short citation (or even a full one!) than an ibid. – it’s just a question of ticking some boxes in software settings.


Maybe most importantly, authors tend to copy and paste within documents (or between documents) as they edit and assemble a manuscript from earlier research. Since references are copied along with the text, it’s very easy for an ibid. to become orphaned, marooned without the referent that formerly gave it meaning. This can lead to editing headaches down the road or, at worst, publishing inaccurate references.


Last Words / Second Thoughts

At this point in drafting the blog post, I thought I’d convinced myself that it’s time for ibid. to wander off to wherever unused abbreviations spend their afterlives. But then the next day I found myself editing a historical manuscript that makes heavy use of archival materials. In long footnotes that reference lots of sources from different archives, the author’s use of ibid. to refer to documents coming from the same archival file clearly both saves space and makes it easier for the reader to understand what’s going on.


Perhaps little ibid. will withstand another round of its proclaimed demise.