How to sort lists alphabetically: even librarians use the easy way

Writing tip from sorting lists

You're editing and and you come to a list that needs sorting into alphabetical order. Easy enough until you strike the mad Macs.  

How should I order the following list of poets?

A. Dorothea Mackellar, Bill Manhire, Rachel McAlpine, or 
B. Dorothea Mackellar, Rachel McAlpine, Bill Manhire?

Two conflicting conventions have claims—now why am I not surprised?

A. We can sort the names letter-by-letter (as-is), with no compromises.  This is logical, simple, mechanical, and American: Manhire before McAlpine.

B. Or we can thoughtfully and kindly and time-wastingly recall that people get muddled when Mac-names like Mackenzie are separated from Mc-names like McAlpine. The more British (and old-fashioned) solution is to bunch all Mc- and Mac- names together, as if all Mc names started with Mac.  That's called word-by-word (as if) ordering. 

How to decide? Ask a librarian. She said:

There is no one answer to this – really dependent on what you are creating list for and even then it can often be either/or. Having said that, computers have a filing convention generated on their understanding of the alphabet which is becoming the norm – especially for indexing.
 So ma—mab—macmah—man— mc.
Easiest way to see this is to make a small list in Excel and sort.
Right. Done. I choose A. 

Trinity College Library. Photo by Thomas Guignard Flickr

Photo by Thomas Guignard on Flickr CC ID-NC-SA 

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