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How to Alphabetize Words

I'm going to go over some general rules for alphabetizing in case you need to manually put a bunch of words in alphabetical order. These are just general rules, some academic and news organizations may follow specific alphabetization styles that deviate from these rules so keep that in mind depending on your circumstances.

The Rules of Alphabetical Order

Aside from knowing the basic ABC order of the alphabet, I'm going to talk about a few of the important rules you need to know. In this general overview, I'm going to try to talk about all the little minefields you might typically encounter when trying to figure out how to alphabetize words into a group of items or lines.

If you're in a hurry, I have a very short summary of the rules of alphabetical order that should answer a lot of your questions about the basic rules of alphabetizing.

PS. If you're looking for a quick method to alphabetize a list of words or lines of text online then check out my free tool for alphabetizing text. It works with all kinds of text formats.

How to Alphabetize Words with Capitals

The primary rule in standard dictionary order is that capital letters come before lowercase letters. Let's go over some examples to make this clearer.

If there are two identical words and one of them is capitalized then the capitalized word goes first in the alphabetical order like so:

As we can see from the example above the company (Apple) comes before the fruit (apple) in any alphabetical list.

Now, what if we had another company with a shorter name like App for example. This shorter name is identical to the start of the other company's name. In this case, the shorter word would take precedence and come first. So our word list would now look like this:

Let's imagine that we added another company whose name was in all caps like AP. This company would place first on the list because it's capitalized and shorter than the rest of the items. Our list now looks like this.

Ok, let's add one more word to the madness here. What if we wanted to add the word "app" to this list - as in an app on your phone. Where would it go?

It's not in uppercase at all and so it must go after the near duplicate "App" and it's shorter than the next word "Apple" so it must go before that word, consequently, our list now looks like this:

Let's add yet one more similar capitalized item to our increasingly complicated little list and find out where it should be sorted.

Imagine a company that has periods in its name like "A.P." for example. Where would an item like that be placed in our alphabetically organized list?

In this case, in weighting "A.P." vs "AP", we comclude that "A.P." will come first as the period in the second character spot will take precedence over any A-Z letter. So our ever-growing example for capital words in alphabetical order now looks like this:

I would treat periods as generally taking precedence over all the letters but another perfectly valid school of thought for alphabetizing word lists like this is to ignore the periods and alphabetize the list as if they were not there.

In summary, the key rule to remember is that capitals have extra weight and will come first in alphabetically competing situations and that shorter is also a factor here specifically - and in general circumstances when organizing things in alphabetical order.

Deal with punctuation by either ignoring them when ranking or ranking the punctuation marks as higher in the sort order than the other letters - give them a similar ranking to a blank space. This is the approach I usually take.

How to Alphabetize People's Names

Names are alphabetized according to some of the standard lexical rules that we've talked about.

But three situations occur in people's names that deserve specific consideration.

These situations relate to the roles of the apostrophe, abbreviations, and accented characters in capitalizing the names of people.

  1. How to alphabetize a name with an apostrophe.
    There are two schools of thought here. The more common one seems to be in indexing the word as if the apostrophe was not there. Therefore "OBrian" would rank exactly the same as O'Brian. You might find this way used in phone books or similar.

    Another option would be to regard the apostrophe as ranking before the letters like a blank space and so "O'Brian" would come before "OBrian"... if such a name existed.

  2. Alphabetizing a name containing an abbreviation.
    The situation for the period is similar to a blank space if sorting on a letter-by-letter basis. But here's an interesting example containing an abbreviation and a period to consider.

    Let's pretend we have two names in our database of customers and we want to put them in alphabetical order. The names are Bob Saint Lawrence and Bob St. James.

    If we go letter-by-letter then Bob Saint Lawrence will come first. There are however some systems in which abbreviated names are alphabetized as if they were not abbreviated. And so Bob St. James would be sorted as if it was Bob Saint James. Using a system rule like this, the order of your name list would now be "Bob St. James, Bob Saint Lawrence".

    I'm not recommending this treatment of abbreviations for most everyday uses but in some very specific formalized systems this kind of word-by-word sorting may be necessary especially if you have to conform data as much as possible in a business system.

  3. Alphabetical order for names with accents in them.
    The most common approach is to put the list in alphabetical order as if the accent didn't exist so É would weigh the same as E in the sort order. In cases of identical items like Élise and Elise then typically the word without the accent would be listed first in the alphabetical order as in this example "Elise, Élise". Languages other than English have very specific and different rules for accented letters which aren't covered in this article.

Alphabetizing Hyphenated Words

In general, you should mostly treat the hyphen as if it were a blank space. For example "clean-shaven" would be sorted as if the hyphen were a blank space as in "clean shaven". Given two identical items where one has a hyphen then the hyphenated word should go in the second spot as in this example - "clean shaven, clean-shaven." The hyphen is given less sorting weight in this instance.

Alphabetizing Names with Hyphens

In terms of alphabetizing people's names with hyphens, a good example would be this already alphabetically sorted list "Mary Ann, Mary-Ann, Maryellen".

The hyphen is generally treated as a space with less sort weight than a real space but more weight than a single letter and so the name "Mary-Ann" falls into the middle of our example alphabetized list.

Some people use a style where the hyphen is considered removed before sorting so that "Mary-Ann" is sorted as if it was "MaryAnn" but we don't talk to those people so don't worry about it.

Alphabetical Sorting for Words and Numbers

Let's just consider numbers and how they can be alphabetically sorted before mixing words into the picture.

Consider these three numbers, "3,4,5". What happens when we add the number "04" to the list? Where will it be alphabetically placed in the order? This is the result:

These surprising results occur because we are not doing numerical sorting. Numerical sorting involves listing numbers by their value in ascending or descending order. Here we're sorting them alphabetically not numerically so the expected results are different. Each number is evaluated on a letter by letter basis.

So when looking at the first character of each string we find that 0 is the lowest of the number characters and so that number will be placed first in the list. The value of the number is not assessed as a whole numerical value. It is evaluated in the sorting order on a digit-by-digit basis.

Numbers will come before letters when alphabetizing lists so any item starting with a number will take precedence as demonstrated by this list.

The easy rule of thumb here is to remember that when alphabetizing a mix of letters and numbers is that the numbers take precedence in the sorting order and they are not sorted according to their overall numerical value most of the time.

Hybrid Sorting Systems

Sorting numbers in a non-numerical fashion can be non-optimal depending on the circumstances. For something like sorting items in a bibliography non-numerical sorting isn't a deal-breaker but in other places, it's a non-ideal way to deal with number sorting.

For things like a list of files, a hybrid mix of alphabetical and numerical sorting might make more sense from a usability perspective. A system like this might want to list files in a way that would make sense at a glance to the average user.

Below is a screenshot from the Windows operating system where file names are sorted alphabetically but when it comes to files with numbered names, the computer employs a numerical sort making sure that "3" comes before "04" in the list of files.

screenshot of an alphabetized list of files

Alphabetical Order Summary List

Here's a quick summary of some of the basic rules you need to know to alphabetize in English.

  1. Capital letters come before lowercase letters
  2. Numbers come before letters
  3. Numbers are generally sorted on a digit-by-digit basis
  4. A blank space will take precedence over a letter in the sort order
  5. Punctuation like the hyphen should be treated similarly to a blank space

I hope you enjoyed this breezy lexical rundown on the ins and outs of how to alphabetize. I tried to make it as entertaining and informative as I could.

If you notice any important fact dealing with alphabetical order that you think should be included, feel free to contact me with the info.

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