How to Alphabetize Files

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Filing alphabetically requires that you adopt a system to ensure consistency.
Filing alphabetically requires that you adopt a system to ensure consistency. (Image: Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images)

Yes, you learned to do this in elementary school — or did you? In the real world, there are prefixes to names to consider, numbers in company names and other companies known only by acronyms of their former names. Suddenly, filing alphabetically becomes a bit more complicated. In order not to "lose" a file that is somewhere but not where you first thought, you need a system. If you share these files with others, the system needs to be straightforward and easily communicated. Filing is done by units. The first unit is usually a person's last name. If two people share the same last name, you advance to the second unit, which is their first names. If they share both, you advance to the third unit, such as a middle name or initial.

Transpose names of individuals when filing using the following system: last name, first name or initial, middle name or initial. For instance, John Q. Public would be filed as "Public, John Q."

Add prefixes to surnames to the surname to make one word and file in alphabetic order. For instance, John Q. De Public would be filed as "DePublic, John Q."

File a confusing name as it is written when you cannot distinguish the first or last name. For example, Jon Q. John would be filed as "John, Jon Q."

Combine hyphenated and compound last names to form one unit and file appropriately. For example, John Q. Doe-Public would be filed as "Doe-Public, John Q."

File titles that are an intrinsic part of a name and in the absence of a last name as the first unit. For example Saint John Q. would be filed as "Saint, John Q."

File full names with titles with the title as the last unit. Thus, Father John Q. Public would be filed as "Public, John Q., Father."

File other titles and name appendages such as Sr., Jr., Mrs., or Ph.D. as the last unit. For example, John Q. Public, Jr. would be filed as "Public, John Q. Jr."

File company names beginning with a title as written. For instance, “Dr. Pepper Bottling Company" should first be filed as "Doctor," then by "Pepper," etc.

File all abbreviations in names as though they were spelled out. Examples include "Saint" for St., "Fort" for Ft. and "Manufacturing" for Mfg.

File a business as written, with two exceptions: If the name is that of an individual, file by last name first, or if the company name is so well-known that following the rule would cause confusion. Thus, the John Q. Public Company would be filed as "Public, John Q. Company." However, Marshall Fields Company would be filed as "Marshall, Fields, Company."

File a business name made of of two or more surnames as written, with each name considered a discrete unit. Thus, the business "Public, Doe & Jones" would be filed as "Public," then as "Doe," and finally as "Jones."

File a company name formed at first by letters, with each letter as a different unit. For example, "WOW Fun" would be filed in the order "W," then "O," and then "W." "Fun" would be the last unit.

File any company with possessive or plural apostrophes as if they were absent. For example, "Men's Club" would be filed as "Mens" and then "Club."

Disregard articles, conjunctions and prepositions when filing, unless the article, conjunction or preposition is an intrinsic part of the name. For example, The End of a Long Day would be filed as "End," "Long" and Day." The Stanford Cardinals, however, would be filed as "The," "Stanford" and lastly "Cardinals." Another exception is when prepositions begin a name. The song "Under the Boardwalk" would be filed first under "Under," then under "Boardwalk."

File numeric names as if they were spelled out and give numbers of more than two digits their proper numeric value. For example, "The 900 Club" would be filed first under "Nine," then under "Hundred" and finally under "Club."

Tips & Warnings

  • If a file location is somewhat confusing ---such as in the two first names situation ---put a dummy file or a colored sheet of paper cross-referencing the other option.
  • Unless you want to spend an hour or so looking for a misfiled file, refile your files correctly. Any filing system is useless if it isn't used consistently.

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