An American Editor

July 16, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 3: The ABCs of Alphabetizing

Ælfwine Mischler

The alphabetizing I learned in school so many years ago — all before PCs and the Internet, of course — was easy. Go by the first letters — Bincoln, Fincoln, Lincoln, Mincoln — and if they’re all the same, look at the second, then the third, etc. — Lankin, Lanky, Lenkin, Lincoln, Linkin. I rarely had to alphabetize anything outside of school assignments (I did not organize my spices alphabetically), but I had to understand alphabetization to find a word in a dictionary, a name in a phone book, a card in a library catalog, or a folder in a file cabinet. Hunting for an organization or business whose name was just initials or began with initials was sometimes tricky, but I soon learned that if I did not find something interspersed with other entries, I could look at the beginning of that letter.

As an indexer, I have to know the conventions of alphabetizing so I can enter terms in the software program, and like so many other things in editorial work, there are different standards to follow. There are two main systems of alphabetizing — word-by-word and letter-by-letter — with some variations within each system. If you are writing an index or hiring an indexer, you have to know which system the publisher uses. Occasionally an indexer might find, in the midst of a project, that switching to the other system would be better, but this must be cleared with the publisher.

Word by Word

In the word-by-word system, generally used in indexes in Great Britain, alphabetizing proceeds up to the first space and then starts over. According to New Hart’s Rules, 2nd ed., hyphens are treated as spaces except where the first element is a prefix, not a word on its own (p. 384). However, the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., treats hyphenated compounds as one word (sec. 16.60).

Letter by Letter

Most US publishers prefer the letter-by-letter system, in which alphabetizing continues up to the first parenthesis or comma, ignoring spaces, hyphens, and other punctuation.

If you are writing your own index in a word processing program, it will use word-by-word sorting. Dedicated indexing software can use either system along with variations. The following table comparing these systems uses Microsoft Word and SKY Indexing Software with various settings. (The items in the table were chosen to demonstrate how the different systems handle spaces, hyphens, commas, and ampersands. Not all of them would appear in an index. The variations on Erie-Lackawanna, for example, would normally have another word, such as “Rail Road,” following them.)


Entries with Same First Word

In the first edition of New Hart’s Rules, names and terms beginning with the same word were ordered according to a hierarchy: people; places; subjects, concepts, and objects; titles of works. You may see this in older books, and it occasionally comes up in indexers’ discussions. However, the second edition of New Hart’s Rules recognizes that most people do not understand this hierarchy and that alphabetizing this way is more work for the indexer. The second edition (p. 385) recommends retaining the strict alphabetical order created by indexing software.

Numbers Following Names

Names and terms followed by numbers are not ordered strictly alphabetically. These could be rulers or popes, or numbered articles or laws, etc. An indexer with dedicated software can insert coding to force these to sort correctly. If you are writing your own index in a word processor, you will have to sort these manually.

When people of different statuses — saints, popes, rulers (perhaps of more than one country), nobles, commoners — share a name, these have to be sorted hierarchically. See New Hart’s Rules, 2nd ed., section 19.3.2, and Kate Mertes, “Classical and Medieval Names” in Indexing Names, edited by Noeline Bridge.

Numerals and Symbols at the Beginning of Entries

Entries that begin with numerals or symbols may be sorted at the top of the index, before the alphabetical sequence. This is preferred by the International and British Standard, and when there are many such entries in a work. Alternatively, they may be interspersed in alphabetical order as if the numeral or symbol were spelled out, and they may be also be double-posted if they appear at the top of the index.

However, in chemical compounds beginning with a prefix, Greek letter, or numeral, the prefix, Greek letter, or numeral is ignored in the sorting.

Greek letters prefixing chemical terms, star names, etc., are customarily spelled out, without a hyphen (New Hart’s Rules, 2nd ed., p. 389).

If you are writing your own index in a word processing program, you will have to manually sort entries with Greek letters or prefixes to be ignored, and entries beginning with numerals if you do not want them sorted at the top. Dedicated indexing programs can be coded to print but ignore items in sorting, or to sort numerals as if they were spelled out.

That’s Not All, Folks

This is just the beginning of alphabetizing issues that indexers face. While most of the actual alphabetizing is done by the software, indexers have to know many conventions regarding whether names are inverted; how particles in names are handled; how Saint, St., Ste. and Mc, Mac, Mc in surnames are alphabetized (styles vary on those); how to enter names of organizations, places, and geographical features. In addition to checking the books mentioned above, you can learn more about indexing best practices and indexing standards on the American Society for Indexing website and from the National Information Standards Organization.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

May 21, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 1: Basic Vocabulary

Filed under: Contributor Article,Editorial Matters,indexing — americaneditor @ 9:08 am

Ælfwine Mischler

When I tell people that I am a copyeditor and indexer, they usually have some idea of what an editor is (if not specifically a copyeditor), but they ask what an indexer is. I am not alone here; most indexers have the same problem. This series is about book indexes (print and ebooks), but there are also indexes for databases, websites, archives, and journals.

An index is an alphabetized list of keywords with (usually) page numbers to guide the reader to the information in the book (whether that be a single-volume or multi-volume text). An index is usually at the back of a book, but for a multi-volume text, it may be in a separate volume.

What an index is not is a concordance. An index does not list every occurrence of every name or word in the text.

If you are an author or editor looking to hire an indexer, it helps if you are all speaking the same language. Here are some basic terms that will pop up in a conversation about your index.


Indexers use locator rather than page number. While the locators are page numbers in most books, in a multivolume work, locators are volume and page numbers. Locators might be numbered sections or paragraphs in a reference book, map and grid numbers in an atlas, or product numbers in a catalog. Locator can also refer to a range to indicate that the topic is discussed on adjacent pages; thus, 23–25 indicates that a discussion is on three pages but is one locator. A string is three or more locators for the same main entry or subentry.

Type of Index Based on Arrangement

One of the first questions an indexer will ask you is whether you want your index to be run-in or indented. This refers to how the subentries are arranged relative to the main entry.

Run-in indexes are usually found in scholarly books where a lot of details are indexed. They take up less space, but are harder to scan with the eye. Indented indexes, which are easier to scan, are usually found in trade and children’s books.

Each box contains one entry. This entry has the main entry, tomb(s), followed by 11 subentries. Each subentry is followed by one or more locators. I have labeled the string of four locators after plundering, and the page range after in Tura. The subentry Montemhet has a gloss (TT 34) that further identifies the tomb as Theban Tomb 34. In this case the gloss was given in the text by the author. Indexers occasionally add glosses where clarification is needed — for example, to differentiate between two people with the same name.

This one entry has 11 subentries and 20 locators — each page or page range is a locator. In my indexing file, there are 20 records for this one entry, one record for each locator. It is important to understand this meaning of entry because in some types of indexes, the indexer is paid by the number of entries (rather than by the more usual page count or word count). If that were the case here, I would consider the text in the illustration to be 20 entries, not one, and the client and I probably would disagree. If you are writing or commissioning an index that will be paid by the number of entries, make sure that the two parties fully understand and agree on what an entry is before work begins.

Number of Levels of Subheads

An indexer will also ask you how many levels of subheads you will allow. The publishers I work for most often allow only one level, as shown in the above example, but occasionally they allow two. Some kinds of specialized indexing require many levels of subheads. The number of levels affects how the information is organized.

Undifferentiated Locators

If there are more than a given number of locators in a string (usually five to seven), it is best to differentiate them by creating subheads. A long string of locators is next to useless for the reader. Some publishers are strict about limiting the number of locators in a string, and this must be communicated to the indexer at the beginning of the project.

Sometimes publishers do not leave an adequate number of pages for the index so there is insufficient space for subheads. This is often seen in trade books, but unfortunately it is becoming more common in scholarly books. If space is short, the indexer will have to create longer strings of undifferentiated locators.

Cross References

The two most common types of cross references in indexes are See and See also. Indexers use See cross references when there is more than one term for a concept, or more than one name for a person. These tell the readers which word to look up to find the information. In this example, readers who go to Arab Spring are told to go to Revolution of 2011, which is the term the author uses.

Indexers use See also cross references to guide the readers to other topics related to the current one. In this example, page 115 explains how the misnomer “solar boat” came to be used. Under Khufu Boat Museum, readers will find more information about the boat itself and its preservation.

See also cross references can go before or after the locators. As the author, you must communicate that preference to the indexer.

One more term to understand is double post. If there is more than one term for a concept (so that a See cross-reference would be expected for one of them) and only a very few locators for it, indexers might list the locators under both terms rather than using a See cross-reference. This is considered good practice because the reader does not have to flip from one page to another, and it might actually take less space to print the locators than the other term. In this example, the double post does, in fact, take less space than the See cross reference.

Indexers also use double posting to create multiple access points for the reader. All or some of the names and terms that are subentries in one place become their own main entries elsewhere. This is called breaking out and is good practice. In the first example in this essay, all of the subentries become main entries elsewhere. Note that plundering and restorations have their own subentries, and Tura has an additional locator that is not related to tombs and thus did not appear when Tura was a subentry under tomb(s).

If space is limited, indexers use less double posting. For example, if space were limited in this case, I would make separate entries for the tombs of Bakenrenef, Horemheb, Maja, Montemhet (TT 34), Sekhemkhet, and Thery, but not include them as subentries under tombs. I would add See also tombs of individuals under their names.

Just the Beginning

You now have some basic vocabulary so you can communicate with an indexer about your book. In other segments, I explain how we create indexes (Hint: We don’t use magic wands, and the computer does not do it for us) and what you can expect in an index.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

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