Concerning the order of letters in the alphabet, how does one refer to "earlier" letters?

For example, "Names starting with "earlier" letters come first in lists."

Would that be "earlier," "higher," "greater," or what?

Adding a tad bit more context, I am actually looking for the most proper way to write the sentence I used as an example. If I'm being confusing, I'll try to better explain myself after some sleep.

  • A precedes B alphabetically. B follows A.
    – dcaswell
    Aug 30, 2013 at 3:37
  • That's helpful in regards to the relationship between letters, but I'm looking for the relationship of letters to the alphabet itself. If 1 is smaller than 2, A is smaller? than B? Smaller is certainly not the correct word, but I'm not sure what is.
    – Meepinator
    Aug 30, 2013 at 3:49
  • A comes earlier than B. A is earlier than B.
    – dcaswell
    Aug 30, 2013 at 4:02
  • 3
    You are referring to the order of the letters in the alphabet, not their size. Hence to say a letter is smaller; or greater; or higher would be incorrect. You could say, earlier if the letters had already been nominated.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 30, 2013 at 4:43
  • 1
    Would prior work?
    – SF.
    Aug 30, 2013 at 12:32

5 Answers 5


If I understand your question correctly, you are referring to lexicographic(al) ordering. In more general terms, A is lexicographically smaller than B if A precedes B in some alphabet X.

I don't think many people without math/computer science backgrounds would understand these terms though.

  • 1
    Though it's a tad bit too technically worded for what I needed, this sounds quite close to what I was looking for.
    – Meepinator
    Aug 30, 2013 at 13:14
  • Okay, let me start this comment off with this disclaimer: I am not knowledgeable in this, or in other words, I really don't know what I'm talking about here! But here's my question: My understanding, such as it is, is that a lexicographical order is really a sort of backwards construction of a numerical sequence as compared to an alphabetical string. In other words, it's a way of defining a mathematical sequence in comparison to an alphabet, and therefore it is not a way of describing an alphabet. It therefore does not APPLY to an alphabet. It applies to NUMBERS. Correct me, please. Aug 30, 2013 at 17:51
  • 2
    Notice that even in the Wikipedia reference you cite, the lexicographical order when applied to an alphabet still does not allow for calling A smaller than B. It says A comes before B, doesn't it? Yes, it does. I think some value in some computing sequence might be lexicographically smaller than some other value, but I just don't think it is valid to say that A is lexicographically smaller than B. A comes ahead of, is prior to, precedes, or comes before, B, but I just don't accept any way it's smaller. Aug 30, 2013 at 18:46
  • @JohnM.Landsberg: It is a generalization of the alphabetical ordering of words. The term "lexicographically smaller" is certainly used in math/programming contexts (see e.g. books.google.be/…, pythonadventures.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/…, codechef.com/problems/SUBANAGR).
    – iterums
    Aug 31, 2013 at 20:39
  • 1
    I would prefer lexicographically prior to or less than, but this is on the right track. Sep 1, 2013 at 18:03

If I understand your question correctly (and to quote the words you use):

You are "actually looking for the most proper way to write the sentence [you] used as an example", namely:

Names starting with "earlier" letters come first in lists.

Personally, I would rewrite that as:

Names are listed alphabetically.
Names are listed in alphabetic order.

If you want to retain a similar format to your example:

Names starting with letters earlier in the alphabet ...
Names starting with alphabetically earlier letters ...
Names higher up the alphabet ...

but personally, I'm not keen of any of those alternatives.

More importantly, in referring to "Names starting with ... letters ...", you could be understood as implying that only the first letter is taken into consideration in determining the order, such that you could have a sequence such as:

Howe, Holmes, Hancock, Hill, Hughes

whereas true alphabetical order would take into account all letters in the name (as far a necessary) to give:

Hancock, Hill, Holmes, Howe, Hughes

  • As always, yours is the most logical answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 1, 2013 at 3:59
  • 1
    @TrevorD - You said it better. Upvoted your answer and deleted mine (since this site is supposed to be about answers). Cheers!
    – user49891
    Sep 4, 2013 at 16:08

"Precedes" is literally correct, although colloquially we usually say that A "comes ahead of" B in the alphabet. And, flipped around, we say B "comes after" A.

And by the way, although it is not exactly incorrect to say that 1 is "smaller than" 2, we generally say it is "less than" 2, not "smaller than."


You could say:

If your surnames start with any letter between H and P ....

Those whose surnames begin with any letter before H ...
Those whose surnames begin with any letter after P...

Because some users have revised their answers that make mine look superfluous.

Using the OP's original example, I would like to offer the following solution:

Names starting with the first three/six letters of the alphabet come first in lists.

Not pithy I grant you, but certainly easily understood by all.

  • 1
    I like between and would upvote but your two last examples are not correct. The surnames cannot begin before or after anything, they can only begin with letters that come before or after. In any case, begin with before is grammatically wrong.
    – terdon
    Aug 30, 2013 at 11:29
  • @terdon I was in a rush to go to work. My bad, I hadn't noticed my mistake. I'll correct it. Thanks.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 30, 2013 at 14:59
  • 1
    Perfect, downvote retracted and upvote added.
    – terdon
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:02

Perhaps the "head" of the alphabet.

head 5a : the end that is upper or higher or opposite the foot b : the source of a stream

from m-w.com

  • after closer inspection this is pretty close to John's answer of "ahead of"
    – Jack Ryan
    Aug 30, 2013 at 12:24

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