Does there exist a general guide to the alphabetization of degenerate cases?
For example, which is to be listed first, "hamburger" or "Hamburger"?

  • 1
    I'll need more context and your research results. – NVZ Mar 17 '16 at 15:17
  • This is like asking why 'it's' stands for 'it is' and not the possessive 'of it'. One thing is clearly more significant than the other, so why not give 'Hamburger' precedence? – Egox Mar 17 '16 at 16:21
  • My experience agrees with choster. In alphebetization, consider H and h to be the same. Similarly, a, à, á, ä and so on are all the same. – GEdgar Mar 17 '16 at 16:24
  • If by "the alphabetization", OP means "the sequence of entries in a dictionary", I suppose it would only be sensible to list the capitalized "hamburger citizen" term first, since that came first chronologically and provides the etymology for the more general noun usage today. But actually I doubt many dictionaries would bother listing it anyway, since it would be difficult to know where to stop (should they list New Yorker?, San Franciscan?). Dumb computer listings would of course automatically sort lower case after upper case, being based on Ascii encoding or similar. – FumbleFingers Mar 17 '16 at 16:29
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    For a taste of what you are getting into with alphabetization rules, see the Unicode Collation Algorithm: unicode.org/reports/tr10 – MetaEd Mar 17 '16 at 16:56

My answer addresses this question as an indexing question, since (I believe) that is how it was presented at the time I wrote my response. Whether viewed as an indexing question or as a dictionary-entry-order question, though, it is fundamentally a question of style.

The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition (2003) offers an interesting take on the question of entry order in the "General Rules of Alphabetizing" section of its chapter on indexes:

18.60 Same name. When a person, a place, and a thing have the same name, they are arranged in normal alphabetical order.

hoe, garden

Hoe, Robert

London, England

London, Jack

Common sense must be exercised. If Amy London and Carolyn Hoe were to appear in the same index as illustrated above, adjustments in the other entries would be needed.

garden hoe

hoe. See garden hoe

Hoe, Carolyn

Hoe, Robert

London (England)

London, Amy

London, Jack

In this example, "hoe" comes before "Hoe, Carolyn" because "hoe" as an entry ends after the first three letters, whereas "Hoe, Carolyn" continues to a second word. The reverse case occurs in a later example, which includes these entries:

Abridgement (Croke), 302–3

Abridgement (Rolle), 316, 316–17

abridgement, cases of, 246n161

In this case, the parenthetical words "(Croke)" and "(Rolle)" are not treated as continuations of the one word entry "Abridgement" but as clarifying notes or attributions that can themselves be alphabetized but don't affect the claim of "Abridgement" to be a one-word entry, in contrast to "abridgement, cases of," which is a three-word entry.

Unfortunately, Chicago doesn't offer any direct guidance on the specific question of whether a one-word entry that is capitalized should always precede or always follow an otherwise identical one-word entry that is lowercased. This is perhaps because the question wouldn't have arisen long ago. As Chicago observes (at 18.10):

Traditionally, all main headings in an index were capitalized; Chicago recommends the practice only where the subentries are so numerous that capitalized main headings make for easier navigation.

In other word, in a traditional index, the entries for "Hamburger" and "hamburger" would have looked like this:



At least as late as 1974, when Words into Type, third edition, was published, the traditional style was still the dominant form. All of Words into Type's coverage of indexing issues assumes that the main entries in an index will be initial-capped.

Presented with single-word entries for generic "hamburger" and proper name "Hamburger" destined for a modern index, Chicago would appear not to have a preference about which one went first. But once you choose one or the other, I think Chicago would strongly support maintaining the same preference across all other identical pairs of entries in the index.

The Oxford Guide to Style (2002) takes a different (and quite detailed) approach to identical words in its section on alphabetical order in indexing:

16.3.1 Systems of alphabetization


The examples below consist of simple and compound entries; simple names precede compound names. In both systems identical entries are ordered as follows:

people: New York, Earl of

places: New York, USA

subjects, concepts, and objects: New York, population

titles of works: New York, New York

This order leads Oxford to use the following entry order in a subsequent example:

high water

High Water (play)

Oxford thus offers clear-cut advice on whether "hamburger" should precede "Hamburger" in three cases: if "Hamburger" is a person, Hamburger goes first; if "Hamburger" is a place, Hamburger goes first; if "Hamburger" is the title of a work, hamburger goes first. On the other hand, if "Hamburger" is a subject, concept, or object (as "hamburger" is), then the two are on the same footing, and Oxford doesn't recommend putting one or the other first.

  • The software won't let me upvote +5, more's the pity. This is an amazing answer. For information in case it interests you, my use case is a 13-page Definitions chapter in a technical manual. Since the chapter includes not merely nouns but all parts of speech, since it cites prominent instances of usage, it is not a mere glossary but more or less a proper dictionary, so I have followed Webster's convention of bolding each defined word in lower case. And, as you see, perplexingly, I have one noun with two, distinct uses in the literature, only one of which the literature capitalizes. – thb Mar 18 '16 at 14:34
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    I just checked The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition (2000), and it consistently places the entry for the lowercase word (e.g., ham, "the thigh of the the hind leg of some animals, especially a hog") before the entry for the capitalized word (e.g., Ham, "a son of Noah and the brother of Japheth and Shem"). It's still strictly a style decision, but at least it provides an example of the choice that one major dictionary made. – Sven Yargs Mar 18 '16 at 15:24

If you treat the entries as different by case, then you should place the most important entry first. EG: God before (a) god. Capitalization is an indicator of importance, so capitalized terms should come first.

Unfortunately, most of the case-sensitive computer sorting collations (such as ASCII) cannot help you as they sort all uppercase before all lower case. EG: Dog before cat.

The long standing practice in indexing and alphabetization is to treat uppercase and lowercase the same. This is reflected in most style manuals, such as the Gregg Reference Manual's "Rules for Alphabetic Filing" (PDF link) which states:

...the differences between capital and lowercase letters should be ignored.

These styles are based on longstanding ARMA standards. For example, see "The 12 Rules of Filing".

Furthermore, if you are creating an index or a definitions table, the convention is to Capitalize each entry anyway. So if you have the terms hamburger and Hamburger, your table would have two entries under Hamburger.


Suppose you have the terms: apple (fruit), God, snake, Apple (company).

Then, 3 different ways to sort them might be:

Standard    ASCII       Case sensitive
--------    --------    --------------
Apple       Apple       Apple
Apple       God         apple
God         apple       God     
Snake       snake       snake   

Use the standard approach. The ASCII one is clearly wrong, and the case-sensitive approach will make the table harder to scan and will also irk publishers, editors, and pedants. ;)


ASCII numerical values for 'a' and 'A' have uppercase coming first.

  • 3
    Are you (seriously) suggesting the ASCII collation sequence is a legitimate guide to alphabetization? – MetaEd Mar 17 '16 at 16:36
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    It depends upon one's use case. – grambo25 Mar 17 '16 at 16:39
  • @grambo25 True. If you are collating records in a database it's a possible choice. But as a general guide? For example should lexicographers go by ASCII? Does that extend to Unicode? Do we sort é after z, for example, because the numerical value falls that way? – MetaEd Mar 17 '16 at 16:50
  • The horse may have been ahead of the cart. I believe the ASCII tables were based on the lexicographical convention, but I don't have support for that belief. – jimm101 Mar 17 '16 at 18:09
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    @jimm101 Not really. The ASCII numerical codes as a collating sequence would put all capitalized words first in the dictionary before all uncapitalized words, because 65..90 are less than 97..122. – MetaEd Mar 17 '16 at 18:32

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