Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Microsoft 365. If you are using an earlier version (Word 2003 or earlier), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for earlier versions of Word, click here: Changing Sort Order.
Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated July 3, 2021)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Microsoft 365
When Word sorts information, it does so according to the underlying codes used to represent characters on the screen. PCs and most other small computers, such as the Macintosh, use the ANSI character set or perhaps the Unicode character set. Regardless of which set is used, each character is assigned a unique numeric value. This assignment is done because computers can only manipulate numbers, not characters.
When sorting, Word is actually sorting information based on the underlying character codes, not on characters themselves. For instance, the ANSI character code for the letter C is 67, and the value for B is 66. By sorting the character codes in ascending order, B will always come before C.
This can lead to some problems when it comes time to sort some types of text. For instance, you may be creating a glossary, index, or bibliography, and you want "Brother, Charles" to come before "Brother Roberts" (in other words, you want the comma ignored during sorting). Unfortunately, you can't do that in Word—sorting is done as already described. While the first seven characters of each term ("Brother") match, the space will always be sorted before the comma. Why? Because the space has a lower numerical character code than does the comma.
The same sort of problem arises when sorting terms that contain abbreviations, such as "St. Charles" and "Saint Jerome." In traditional literary indexes, "St. Charles" would appear before "Saint Jerome." In mechanical indexes (an index sorted by a computer program such as Word is referred to as a mechanical index) the opposite is true because the "t" in "St." comes after the "a" in "Saint".
If someone is bound and determined to develop a list of text sorted in the grand literary style, then the only solution is to do it by hand or to use some work-around process. For instance, you could write all instances of "St. Charles" as "Saint Charles," but format "Saint" in such a way that after sorting you could easily find it (using Word's replace feature) and replace it with "St."
This is obviously a lot of work, particularly if you are dealing with a large amount of text. For this reason, many publishing houses (particularly those that publish technical non-fiction works) find using mechanical indexes quite acceptable. Those who prefer the traditional literary approach, however, are out of luck when it comes to Word.
WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (13116) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Microsoft 365. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Word here: Changing Sort Order.
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