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.

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