Alphabetize That

Since I’ve been in editing school, I’ve been amazed and embarrassed by some things I didn’t know until my instructor brought them up.  Case in point: Alphabetization.

I thought I’d mastered that skill in 3rd grade, and I’ll bet you think so, too.  It turns out there are two distinct methods of alphabetizing a list, and they have quite different results. 

Method 1: Letter by letter
This is the one you are probably familiar with.  It’s the way the dictionary is alphabetized.  You order the entries without regard for word breaks.  So “freelancer” comes before “freelance writer,” because r comes before w.  Right?  With me so far?

Method 2: Word by word
This method is used in phone books and libraries. So you’re familiar with this one too; you just never noticed it was different.  In the word-by-word system, you alphabetize up to the end of the first word, using subsequent words only when additional items begin with the same word.  So “freelance writer” comes before “freelancer,” because “freelance” comes before “freelancer.”  Or, in phone book terms, “Smith, Mary” comes before “Smithe, John,” even though e comes before m.

Look at the different lists these methods produce.

Letter by letter
newborn
newcomer
New Deal
new economics
newel
Newfoundland
newlyweds
new math
newsboy
news conference
newsletter
newt
new town

ok, same list, alphabetized word by word
New Deal
new economics
new math
new town
newborn
newel
Newfoundland
newlyweds
news conference
newsboy
newsletter
newt

Now you know.  You can thank me later.

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14 thoughts on “Alphabetize That

  1. Me thinkest that you’re a prime candidate for intervention and deprogramming.     Gotta be the editing class again.  Or, maybe that coffee house disaster pushed you over the edge.

  2. Now I don’t feel quite so…..SLOW…..about the fact that I have failed to catch 3 errors in my 2nd graders alphabetizing homework.  I tell her, “Yup – that’s all correct!” and then feel like a moron when it comes home marked incorrect.  Duh!

  3. Alphabetizing is just wrong.  It gives preference to the letter ‘A’ while discriminating against all the other letters.  And for no good reason.  ‘A’ isn’t better than the rest of the letters.  I mean it’s just a common vowel, not even the most used one, that honor goes to ‘E’ and it’s not first.  Where’s the meritocracy in this system.  I think ‘X’ and ‘Z’ should stage some sort of protest.  I mean if we used Scrabble letter values, that might be a fun way to order things.  Wait, I may have missed the point of this whole thing.  Sorry.

  4. What Gungaboy said is the reason companies name their businesses “AAA whatever.”It always cracks me up the way the postal abbreviations screw up the alphabetizing of the states.  But I crack up easily.

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