An American Editor

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.

February 19, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 4: Omitting, Capitalizing, and Alphabetizing the Definite Article

AElfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer in Cairo, I often work on materials containing Arabic terms and names. The Arabic definite article, usually romanized as al-, although such a small word — only two letters, alif lam — often presents problems for writers and editors of English texts.

In Part 3, I talked about:

  • assimilating with the following letter
  • merging the article
  • elliding the vowel

In this part, I talk about more difficulties with the definite article:

  • dropping the article in names
  • capitalizing
  • alphabetizing

Dropping the Article in Names

Most newspapers and trade books drop the article from surnames when the surname alone is used on subsequent mention of a person. For example, Bashar al-Assad on first mention, and Assad on subsequent mention. If this is the style of the publisher for whom you are writing or editing, be consistent, but note that in scholarly works, styles often call for the article to not be dropped. In those instances, Bashar al-Assad is al-Assad on subsequent mention.

My Egyptian colleagues have often complained to me about styles that drop the definite article from names. They feel that the article is an integral part of their names. One colleague said that her family name El-Naggar was a Muslim family name and that Naggar was a Christian family name. Dropping the article was changing her identity. Some contemporary people spell their family name as one word without the hyphen (sometimes with camel capping, as Nobel Prize–winner Mohamed ElBaradei spells his surname) and thus ensure that the article is not dropped.


My Egyptian colleagues also were adamant that the definite article in their names be capitalized, even when it was hyphenated to the main part of their name. However, most styles of romanization do not capitalize al- at the beginning of a name unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence or bibliography entry. Some styles capitalize al- only at the beginning of a sentence and not elsewhere.

When the definite article comes at the beginning of a book or journal title, styles vary. Some publishers lowercase the article in all cases, even when it comes at the beginning of a citation. Others capitalize the article if it is the first word in a title, but not elsewhere in the title.

For that matter, capitalization of other words in titles also varies among publishers. Some capitalize only the first word and proper nouns within the title, but not adjectives derived from proper nouns. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., for example, uses sentence style: “Capitalize only the first word and any proper nouns. This practice applies to titles of works as well as to names of journals and organizations” (Sec. 11.80). The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) says to follow English capitalization rules, which I would interpret to include capitalization of adjectives derived from proper nouns.

Once again, my advice to authors and copyeditors is to know what the publisher wants, be meticulous in creating your style sheet, and keep a sharp eye out for inconsistencies.


Arabic names beginning with the definite article are conventionally alphabetized by ignoring the definite article. Thus, for example, al-Nahhas is alphabetized under N. How the article is handled in alphabetical lists again varies from one publisher to another. Some will keep the article in its place but ignore it (a style often preferred by indexers), while others will detach it and add it at the end preceded by a comma: Nahhas, Mustafa al-. Indexes containing Arabic names should carry a note to that effect at the beginning to direct readers, especially in trade books. The convention is well known in scholarly circles, but a note is still useful for nonspecialist readers who might search the index.

Perhaps I have a streak of rebelliousness in me, or I am just influenced by my Egyptian colleagues who consider the article in their surnames to be integral to their identities. As more Arabs write their surnames as one unhyphenated unit, will the convention of ignoring the article in alphabetizing change? When I index a book with modern Arabic names, I itch to alphabetize all the names beginning with an article — whether it is attached or not — under A or E, depending on how the person spells his or her name. Otherwise, how will index users know (or remember if they have already read the book) that So-and-so spells his name as one word but What’s-her-name does not? Although it resulted in a long list of names under A in the index, I was quite pleased when the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Arab Novelistic Traditions requested that I not discount the article in names. However, book titles beginning with Al- had the article moved to the end of the entry.

One final note. The word for “clan,” Āl, is often written without the macron in trade books and newspapers, and might be confused for the definite article and wrongly attached to the following word with a hyphen. It appears in the name of the ruling family of Qatar, Āl Thānī, and also in the name of one sura of the Qur’an, Āl ʿImrān. If you should come upon such a name, it should be alphabetized under Al.*

*Heather Hedden, “Arabic Names,” in Indexing Names, ed. Noeline Bridge (Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2012).

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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