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.

June 18, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 2: No Magic Wands

Ælfwine Mischler

I took up indexing several years ago when I wanted to branch out from copyediting. I have found indexing to be more intellectually challenging and, thus, a welcome change from copyediting. I do both as a freelancer, but not on one book at the same time, and enjoy the variety.

Most indexers describe what they do as mapping a book — and it is mapping — but I think of it as looking at the book from a different angle. Think of forest and trees. When I am copyediting, it is like creeping along the forest floor, looking at not just every tree but at every detail. (I have seen that name spelled two different ways; which is correct? Does that comma belong here? This verb does not match the subject, but what is the subject in this twisted sentence? Is there a better word for that?) But when I am indexing, it is like flying over the treetops, seeing a bigger picture. (Here is a section on topic X. Over there, the topic is raised again. And this topic here is related to X. There is a lot of information about this person. How should I break it up and organize it?)

Indexing is a creative process. It is said that no two indexers would produce the same index of a given book. I have software to help me organize what I put into an index, but I am the one who decides what to include and what words to use. Just as you do not open a word processing program and expect it to write a document for you, I do not open my indexing program and expect it to write an index for me. Many people seem to think that I plug the manuscript into some software and out pops the index. (There are some programs that claim to do just that, but indexers in my circles say they cannot rely on them to produce a good index.)

No, folks, writing an index is not that easy. I actually read the book, cover to cover. I sometimes wish I had a magic wand that could do it for me — “Indexify!” — but I have to read everything.

“So do you read a page and put in all the A words, then all the B words, then all the C words?” asked a friend.

“No, I put in the words and the software alphabetizes them.”

She still seemed a bit stumped.

“Do you read the whole book first?” asked a nephew.

“No, there is not enough time to do that. I have to index from the start.”

Working from a PDF file of a book’s second proofs (usually), I read the foreword, preface, and introduction to get an idea of the importance of the book, the topics covered, and the book’s organization. From the table of contents, I often index the chapter titles and section headings to form the basic structure of the index. Each chapter title becomes a main entry, and the section headings form subentries. I will then break out most of those subentries to form their own main entries as well. (See Part 1 of this series)

I often have to change the chapter titles or section headings to make them suitable for index entries. If the book does not have section headings, I have the more-difficult task of skimming the text for verbal clues to a change of topic.

Then I go back over the chapters and pick up more details within each section. If the entry has a long page range, I look for some logical way to break it down into smaller ranges; that is, create subentries. Also, if a particular name or concept has many different locators, I look for some way to break them into subentries. I also look for related concepts and write see also cross-references.

What to call a given entry is not always obvious. If nothing comes to me quickly, I use tools within the software — color coding to remind myself to come back to it later, and hidden text with a few words about the topic. Often after reading a few more pages, the answer comes to me.

One of the things that makes indexing so mentally challenging is that I have to keep so many things in my head at one time. If I indexed concept Z as term Z′, I have to continue to keep an eye open for Z throughout the book and remember to call it Z′ and not something else — all the while doing this for concepts A, B, C, etc. My indexing software can help me to use Z′ and not something else, but it cannot help me to remember to pick it out from the book. If I later realize that I have missed some cases of Z, I can attempt to search for a word in the PDF file to find it, but in most cases, there is no exact word or phrase that will take me to Z. The words in an index are often not found in the book, which is another reason why automatic computer indexing cannot produce a good index.

Names often present challenges to me and other indexers. In school years ago, I learned to look for names in an index under the surname — Abraham Lincoln under Lincoln — but not all cultures invert names, and parts of names such as de, von, la, Abu, and Ibn can be problematic. Medieval names and names of nobility and royalty have their own conventions. The first book I indexed for hire contained the whole range of problems: ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek and Roman, medieval, and royal names; pre-modern and modern Arabic names (which follow different conventions); European names with particles; nobility titles (from various countries, no less!); and saints, too!

Fortunately, I had a very understanding managing editor who knew this was my first paid index and was willing to help me with the difficult names. Not all indexers are so fortunate in their clients. (For more information about the complexities of indexing names, see Indexing, edited by Noeline Bridge, and occasional articles in The Indexer.)

What did I have to learn in my indexing course? In addition to conventions about names, there are conventions for wording entries (for example, use plural nouns, don’t use adjectives alone, use prepositions or conjunctions at the beginning of subentries in run-in style), different ways to alphabetize (handled by the software options), and guidelines for whether to index a given item — a topic for another day. The course I took from the University of California at Berkeley Extension also required us to sample the three major indexing software programs — Macrex, Cindex, and Sky — which all do the same things but are different in their interfaces. Online courses are also available from the American Society for Indexing and the Society of Indexers.

Now I leave you so I can sail over the trees of another book.

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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