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English Alphabetizing Rules Posted by on Oct 18, 2019 in English Language

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My wife has been in the book business for…well…a very long time. We have a lot of books. We find it necessary to shelve all those books in something which resembles an orderly system so that we can find them again. We have bookcases that are carefully alphabetized by an author’s last name. If the author has more than one book, the books are then alphabetized by title. Cookbooks are arranged by category as well as author. Thus, there’s a category for baking, with sub-categories for bread, cookies, and pies, among others. The same is true for general fiction, science fiction, mysteries, and westerns.

Alphabetizing is defined as the arrangement of words in alphabetical order. There are rules to English alphabetization, and those rules are very precise. Knowing those rules will help you to establish and maintain order in any record-keeping, listing, or filing system which you might have or need. Including, but not exclusive to, your bookshelf.

Let’s take a look at some general rules of alphabetization as well as some of the rules which many people have difficulty with.

Alphabetical Order

Always alphabetize names by the first letter of the last name. A before B, and so on. If the first letters of the last name are the same, order according to the second letter. On my bookshelf, Douglas Adams is placed before Isaac Asimov because d comes before s alphabetically. The plays of Aaron Sorkin are shelved after the plays of William Shakespeare. And, on that same shelf, Macbeth comes before Merchant of Venice, which comes before Much Ado About Nothing.

Got it?

But what about other names? Remember that names are always filed by the last name, first name or initial, middle name or initial. The playwright G. Matthew Gaskell, for example, would be listed as Gaskell, G. Matthew.

Many names have prefixes. Examples include D’, de, De, Del, Du, Fitz, La, le, Le, Mac, Mc, O’, St., van, and Van. A prefix followed by a surname should be considered as one word. The author A. E. Van Vogt would be alphabetized as van Vogt, A. E.

Oh, and that tricky prefix St.? It’s an abbreviation of Saint, so you must alphabetize it as if it was fully written out. So, if you see a name like Andrew St. Croix and another name like Diana Saint James, Mr. St. Croix would come first alphabetically.

Many names are also hyphenated. Ignore the hyphen when alphabetizing and focus on the first part of the hyphenated name. Ronald Pike-Smith’s name would appear alphabetized before Andrew Sullivan-Cox.

What about nicknames? Billy Stewart is obviously a nickname for William Stewart, so wouldn’t his name be alphabetized after Patricia Stewart? Not if Billy is the approved given name. Many celebrities, for example, are so commonly associated with their nicknames that their given names should not be considered.

Abbreviated titles, such as for Doctor (Dr.), Congressman (Rep.), or Clergy (Rev.) should not be considered when alphabetizing. Likewise, ignore titles such as Mr., Ms., or Mrs. when alphabetizing names.

If the title of a book, play, or movie contains one of these honorifics, however, you must include it. Remember, though, to consider the full word and not the abbreviation. Abbreviated titles are always considered as if they are fully written out. You would alphabetize the book and movie title Goodbye, Mr. Chips as if the title was Goodbye, Mister Chips, or Dr. No as if the title was Doctor No.

Business and other things

What about alphabetizing other things? Suppose you have a list of businesses in your town. Alphabetize things based on the second part of the name if the first is the same. COFFEE CONNECTION before COFFEE ROASTERS.


Names that are a single letter come before names that begin with that same letter. Alphabetically speaking, a store named G WHIZ TOYS would be listed before a business named GARY’S GARAGE.


Numbers are always listed before letters. In a list of movies starring the actor Cliff Robertson, 633 Squadron would appear before the movie Charly. But, numerical order is important. Thus, the movie 10 Rillington Place would appear before 101 Dalmatians. But, the movie Seven would be listed after those, because it is spelled out. Oh, and Arabic numerals appear before Roman numerals in any list. So, in a list of businesses, 21ST CENTURY REAL ESTATE would appear before V STREET MOTORS.

Yes, alphabetical rules can be complicated. But, this is English after all. And English, as we all know, isn’t as easy as ABC.


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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.