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indexes: alphabetical arrangement

Headings in indexes are arranged in alphabetical order. But there is more than one way to alphabetize. The information below will help you choose the method that is suitable for your purposes.

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Two ways of alphabetizing

Headings may be alphabetized letter by letter or word by word.

Letter by letter Word by word
Laurence, Margaret Laurence, Margaret
Leacock, Stephen Le Jeune, Père
Leechman, Douglas Le Pan, Douglas
Le Jeune, Père Leacock, Stephan
Le Pan, Douglas Leechman, Douglas

As shown above, in the word-by-word listing, the position of the two-word names is determined by the first word (Laurence comes before Le, which comes before Leacock). The second part of the surname comes into play in determining which of the two names beginning with Le is listed first (Le + J comes before Le + P).

In the letter-by-letter arrangement, the number of words in the heading is irrelevant. (L-a comes before L-e; and L-e-a comes before L-e-e, which comes before L-e-J, etc.)


One method of alphabetizing may be better than the other for certain uses.

Letter by letter

Use the letter-by-letter format for an index of acronyms, letters and symbols with technical meanings, as in a scientific work.

List organizations by their acronyms or abbreviations if they are usually referred to in that way. The short form should be alphabetized letter by letter and followed immediately by the full title in parentheses or a cross-reference to that title.

Word by word

A word-by-word arrangement is often used in a proper noun listing of geographical names:

  • North Umpqua
  • North Valley Stream
  • North Vancouver
  • North Vernon
  • North Versailles
  • Northumberland Strait
  • Northumbria
  • Northvale
  • Northville

In a letter-by-letter listing, the entries with the word North would not have been grouped together.

Advantages and disadvantages

The word-by-word listing provides for a clear grouping of related headings, e.g. book, book jacket, book label and book list, which would otherwise be separated by a heading such as bookkeeping.

Its disadvantage is that a related term may have to be separated from the grouping because it is one word (hyphenated or unhyphenated). For example, words such as booklet and bookmark might well be separated from the above group, even though they belong to the same subject field.

This shows the advantage of a letter-by-letter listing: a compound occupies the same position, whether it is unhyphenated, hyphenated or written as two words.


Note that, whichever arrangement is adopted, prepositions at the beginning of a subentry or sub-subentry must be disregarded for alphabetization purposes.

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