What? There’s more than one way to alphabetize?

Woman saying Did you know that there are different ways of alphabetizing? For most people, that knowledge comes as a surprise. It seems to be a dirty little secret of indexers, lexicographers, and editors, but there you have it.

In skinning a cat and in alphabetizing that process, you’ve got more than one way to go.

Three methods of alphabetizing are the most common:

  1. word by word
  2. letter by letter
  3. ASCII

Let’s look at the first two methods. (ASCII, short for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is a character coding standard.)

Alphabetizing, word by word

In this system, alphabetizing is based on the first word. If two entries have the same first word, the next word is considered, and so on. Any group of letters followed by a space precedes an identical group of letters followed by additional letters.

This method is common in indexes and library catalogues because it groups headings with the same word or words. Remember phone books? They also used word by word alphabetization.

Alphabetizing, letter by letter

Letter by letter alphabetizing considers every letter in sequence and only the letters. It disregards spaces, punctuation, capitals, and accent marks.

This method is common in reference lists and bibliographies. It’s used, for example, in APA Style to order reference list entries.

Fine. Who cares anyway?

We hear you; these distinctions may seem trivial. However, the various alphabetization approaches can lead to markedly different lists. Let’s compare two sets of terms word by word and letter by letter:

As you can see, knowing which rules to apply can come in handy when it comes time to organize your entries.

Three rules to remember when alphabetizing

Letter by letter alphabetization is used in most academic writing (except for indexes), so that’s likely the system you’ll want to learn. Follow these three rules to keep the process as simple as possible:

  1. Go letter by letter.
  2. Ignore spaces, capitals, accent marks, and punctuation (hyphens, apostrophes, periods, commas).
  3. Use the first significant word, ignoring a, an, and the.

Pay close attention to that last rule: in APA Style, articles (a, an, and the) are disregarded when alphabetizing. It’s a common error to put, say, a group author whose name starts with “The” out of alphabetical order.

With these rules in mind, however, you should soon be a pro at alphabetizing those reference list entries!

Bonus tip for the technically inclined

Microsoft Word has an autosort feature you can use to alphabetize, but be warned: It sorts based on ASCII Unicode values. Depending on the words, it may generate a different list than would be created following the rules above.

  • “New lamps for old,” for example, would be alphabetized first, because ASCII does not ignore punctuation (Rule #2 above).
  • If we added The New York Times to our list, it would be alphabetized under the letter T, instead of the letter N, because Microsoft Word would not ignore the word The (Rule #3).

Autosorting is handy, and at Editarians we use it often. Just be sure to look over the results with the above three rules in mind and manually fix any exceptions.

To use this feature, select the text you want to alphabetize and click the autosort icon on the Home tab:

Screenshot of Microsoft Word's

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve enjoyed this post. What words have you struggled to alphabetize?


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