Alphabetical order  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Alphabetical order is a system whereby strings of characters are placed in order based on the position of the characters in the conventional ordering of an alphabet. It is one of the methods of collation.

To determine which of two strings comes first in alphabetical order, their first letters are compared. If they differ, then the string whose first letter comes earlier in the alphabet is the one which comes first in alphabetical order. If the first letters are the same, then the second letters are compared, and so on. If a position is reached where one string has no more letters to compare while the other does, then the first (shorter) string is deemed to come first in alphabetical order.

Capital letters are generally considered to be identical to their corresponding small letters for the purposes of alphabetical ordering, though conventions may be adopted to handle situations where two strings differ only in capitalization. Various conventions also exist for the handling of strings containing spaces, modified letters (such as those with diacritics), and non-letter characters such as marks of punctuation.

The result of placing a set of words or strings in alphabetical order is that all the strings beginning with the same letter are grouped together; and within that grouping all words beginning with the same two-letter sequence are grouped together; and so on. The system thus tends to maximize the number of common initial letters between adjacent words.


The first effective use of alphabetical order among scholars may have been in ancient Alexandria. In the 1st century BC, Varro wrote some alphabetic lists of authors and titles. In the 2nd century AD, Sextus Pompeius Festus wrote an encyclopedic work with entries in alphabetic order. In the 3rd century, Harpocration wrote a Homeric lexicon alphabetized by all letters. In the 10th century, the author of the Suda used alphabetic order with phonetic variations. In the 14th century, the author of the Fons memorabilium universi used a classification, but used alphabetical order within some of the books.

In 1604 Robert Cawdrey had to explain in Table Alphabeticall, the first monolingual English dictionary, "Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end."

The Enlightenment saw the creation of a new way of structuring information in books. The first work to employ this method was the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697) by Pierre Bayle, in which the information is ordered in alphabetical order.

Although as late as 1803 Samuel Taylor Coleridge condemned encyclopedias with "an arrangement determined by the accident of initial letters", many lists are today based on this principle.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Alphabetical order" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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