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I am creating a glossary that includes both acronyms and multi-word definitions, and I'm wondering if there is a standard/most-appropriate way to sort them.

I have tried to search for alphabetization rules and come across seemingly conflicting standards. A few are listed below. There is no governing standard at my organization, so I'm having a hard time choosing which is most appropriate. Perhaps all are equally valid - that's why I'm asking.

  • NSIO - alphabetize acronyms letter by letter, as written
  • Dartmouth University - alphabetize acronyms as if they were spelled out
  • McGraw Hill - alphabetize 'unit by unit', with an acronym being a single unit
  • Something I Remember But Can't Find an Online Source For - put the acronyms at the front of a given letter section (in order), followed by the real phrases.

Here is a contrived example.

  • NASA - See National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration - The US space agency...
  • NATO - See North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization - A military alliance...

(Sorted here based on letter-by-letter)

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I prefer the NSIO method. When I look up 'LOL', I expect to find it next to 'lolly' not 'laughing'. If I already knew it meant 'laughing...' I wouldn't need to look it up. – dnagirl Feb 7 '13 at 15:43
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The Dartmouth College and McGraw-Hill documents you cite above are not guidelines for alphabetizing a glossary. They relate to storing records in a computer system. When storing official records, there are a variety of reasons to use official names instead of a nickname or more familiar abbreviation.

Whether you intermingle the acronyms with words, then, is the only real question, and that will depend somewhat on your audience and on the corpus you work with. Many dictionaries parcel off acronyms into a separate section entirely, and this may make sense if you have a relatively small number of acronyms, or if they will be looked up more often than other terms, and you want to make them easier to find.

I would generally advocate the mixed approach, treating acronyms as words, and listed together (i.e. ignoring capitalization) alphabetically, as per the "NSIO method."

The entire purpose of checking a glossary is to learn the meaning of a word you do not recognize; expecting someone to know the meaning of an acronym is utterly backwards. If we alphabetized abbreviations according to their long forms, anyone searching for MPT in a chemical glossary would be doomed never to learn that it is tetrahydromethanopterin, or be forced to skim every single term. In Internet parlance, it would be the Worst Glossary Evar.

As a small additional note, many abbreviations have been adopted as words in their own right— R.A.D.A.R. becoming radar and so forth. Even within an organization, jargon can become regularized in internal communications: in 2003 I might have been spelled out "Place client X on the Suspended for Non-Payment list," but by 2013 that might have become an exasperated "We need to snip client X again." So, a mixed approach may be slightly more "future-proof."

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NSIO seems to be the most widely method used in the US. A single acronym may have several possible definitions. For example: NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) could also be NATO (No action- Talk only). If you have several definitions using the same acronym, I would use the Dartmouth University method. In the case NATO= No action-Talk only, would come first, followed by NATO= North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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