Sections 16.58–61 in the Spotlight

16.58-6116.58–61 Alphabetizing

When putting items into alphabetical order, which comes first:

—Albert the Great or Albert of Saxony?
—HMD or H&M?
—wthr (weather) or wiki?
—O’Shaughnessy or Omartian?

Answers to questions like these sometimes depend on what system you use to alphabetize: “word by word” or “letter by letter.”

Letter-by-Letter Alphabetizing

In letter-by-letter alphabetizing, every letter counts, including articles and prepositions. Spaces and most punctuation marks are ignored. Exception: a parenthesis or comma interrupts the alphabetizing. A parenthesis is a stronger interruption than a comma and therefore comes first in order.

new (adj.) (treated as new + parenthesis)
New, Aaron (treated as new + comma)
new-age (treated as newa)
newborn (treated as newb)
New Deal (treated as newd)
“new-fangled” ideas (treated as newf)
New Hampshire (treated as newh)
new/old (treated as newo)
newt (treated as newt)
new to me (treated as newto)

Word-by-Word Alphabetizing

In word-by-word alphabetizing, alphabetizing stops after the first word. (That is, spaces are not ignored.) As in the letter-by-letter system, punctuation is ignored except for parentheses and commas, which come respectively before other interruptions.

Compare the position of the phrase “new to me” in this list with its position in the list above. You can see that in letter-by-letter alphabetizing, the space between new and to is ignored, whereas in the word-by-word system, the space after new causes the phrase to be grouped with other phrases where new stands on its own as a word. All the phrases that contain new as a stand-alone word are listed first, followed by words beginning with the letters n-e-w.

New, Aaron (treated as new + comma)
New Deal (treated as new + d)
New Hampshire (treated as new + h)
new to me (treated as new + t)
new-age (treated as newa)
newborn (treated as newb)
“new-fangled” ideas (treated as newf)
new/old (treated as newo)
newt (treated as newt)

Which System to Use

Dictionaries are normally arranged letter by letter; library catalogs and telephone listings are usually arranged word by word. Take a look at some reference books to get a feel for the appropriateness of their alphabetizing.

Alphabetizing rules are very important in lengthy lists like indexes, directories, and catalogs, where mixing the two systems could result in real confusion and inconvenience for readers. If you get bogged down trying to make alphabetizing decisions, take a look at CMOS 16.61, where a table shows the same list of words alphabetized letter by letter and word by word. The examples there can help you make the right choice. Sections 16.56–93 contain many other tips and examples for alphabetizing names, numbers, abbreviations, and special characters.

For short, simple lists, strict crafting by one system or another is less crucial. After all, few readers are aware of rules for alphabetizing. If they can’t find “St. John” near sa, they know to check near st. A short list, in fact, might turn out the same no matter which system you use. As it happens, the order for the items mentioned at the top of this post turns out to be the same in both systems:

Word by word Letter by letter
Albert of Saxony Albert of Saxony
Albert the Great Albert the Great
wiki wiki
wthr (weather) wthr (weather)
Omartian Omartian
O’Shaughnessy O’Shaughnessy

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