Why is it that in lists of people’s names, surnames beginning with Mc are listed before surnames beginning with Ma?

For example, if a book had a bibliography listing its references, we would see that McGann, Anthony listed first and Maddox, Graham second, like this:


  1. McGann, Anthony ...
  2. Maddox, Graham ...

Why doesn’t the ‹a› in McGann come before the ‹d› in Maddox here? Does capitalization matter?

Even when you search Wikipedia, their pop-up is ordered strangely when you start typing in the search box and get as far as “ian mac”:

wikipedia popup for "ian mac" search

That order is not what I would expect. Why do they do that? Also, how come they showed me Ian McKellan and Ian McShane and such when those don’t start with the same letters as those I searched for when I typed “ian mac”?

Does this happen with other names more or less like those as well, making names like these appear in a surprising order as well?

  1. May, Julian
  2. Mbombela, Frederica
  3. McBride, Martina
  4. Mabrey, Sunny
  5. Macaluso, Luigi
  6. Magellan, Ferdinand
  7. MacGill, James
  8. Mack, Sennett
  9. McGill, Jason
  10. McKinley, William
  11. Mackerel, Jack
  12. Machado, Antonio
  13. Machiavelli, Niccolò
  14. Ma, Yo-Yo
  • Perhaps the sorting is done on the basis of first name. Anthony comes before Graham.
    – Sandeep D
    Feb 18, 2014 at 8:05
  • 1
    @SandeepDhamija Not so. In that case, the names would be listed with the first name first: Anthony McGann, Graham Maddox.
    – Kris
    Feb 18, 2014 at 8:20
  • 2
    McNames are generally sorted as if they are spelled Mac - because if you're verbally advised to call "McDonald", you might not know which way the name is spelled, so it's handy to have them all sorted together. Feb 18, 2014 at 12:26

3 Answers 3


The usual convention in the UK, in telephone directories etc is that Scottish surnames starting Mc are, for alphabetical purposes, treated as though there were an invisible a, between the M and the c. Thus our own telephone directory proceeds as McDonald, J.A., MacDonald J.C., McDonald J.M., MacDonald K. etc.

  • 2
    -1 What is an "invisible a"? Why is such a convention needed? Is there an "invisible" motive behind it? Is the phenomenon a quirk of the telephone directories, or is that more pervasive?
    – Kris
    Feb 19, 2014 at 6:51
  • 14
    @Kris So you downvote me on account of the practices of directory compilers? As anyone who has a surname starting Mc (which is only an abbreviation of Mac) will tell you, they regularly receive mail addressed both ways. No one other than close friends and relatives ever remember. Whenever I send a Christmas card to my Scottish GP I always have to check (even after 28 years) whether his name starts Mc or Mac. So it seems reasonable enough for a directory compiler to treat all instances of 'Mc' as if they were 'Mac'. But I don't know why I am having to defend people who compile directories.
    – WS2
    Feb 19, 2014 at 9:15
  • 1
    That counts as a great and useful comment, though not an answer.
    – Kris
    Feb 19, 2014 at 9:16
  • 4
    @Kris I shall avoid the pettiness of down voting your own answer, but I note that it provides less information yet says substantially the same thing as mine. And that's the last I have to say on the matter.
    – WS2
    Feb 19, 2014 at 9:23
  • 2
    I heard of this convention in school long ago. But (living in the US) I have never seen it applied.
    – GEdgar
    Jul 11, 2017 at 16:55

Most likely, it is because of treating Mc and Mac as identical.

Naturally then, Mac occurs before Maddox.

It's as such not a sorting issue but a lexical one.


Practise varies between cultures, and between organisations within those cultures.

Some take surnames strictly alphabetically, so Makespeare would come before Mcdonald.

Others (as in your example) treat Mc as an abbreviation of Mac, thus putting Mcdonald before Maddox.

See wikipedia on this here.

  • 1
    Seconds apart! Agree with you.
    – Kris
    Feb 18, 2014 at 8:21
  • All I can speak for is the UK telephone directory convention which places McDonald before Maddox.
    – WS2
    Dec 29, 2014 at 10:31
  • Practise also varies depending on software.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 23, 2020 at 19:46

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