Breaking the Rule: “The” and “A” in Book Titles

Do indexers have permission to ignore articles in titles?

Opinion published 23 May 2024

I homeschooled my kids, from the fall of 2011 through the spring of 2023. Until they were in 8th grade, I was in charge of their entire curriculum—math, science, writing, and everything in between. Of course, I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, and I used quite a bit of curriculum prepared for and by teachers. So I have a good idea of how things are taught in school, especially in the grammar school years.

Grammar school rule

In the early grades, children are taught the alphabet and alphabetization rules. One rule taught to grammar school students is how to alphabetize the titles of books. They learn to ignore articles like “the” at the beginning of a title. The list of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, for example, would be alphabetized as the following:

The BFG
The Champion of the World Danny
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
The Enormous Crocodile
Esio Trot
Fantastic Mr Fox
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
The Gremlin
James and the Giant Peach
The Magic Finger
Matilda
The Minpins
The Twits
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Witches 

In this list, you can see that The BFG comes first because “The” is ignored in the alphabetization, and the tile is sorted on “BFG.” The Witches is last because “W” is the last letter in this alphabetized series, again because “The” is ignored in the alphabetization sort.

The Chicago Manual of Style rule

Just like teachers use curriculums as guides to teach students, book people have guides, or rules to follow, in the publishing world. One such guide is The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). It is a reference guide directed at editors, copywriters, designers, publishers, and, yes, indexers. Self-described as “the venerable, time-tested guide to style, usage, and grammar,” the CMS, first published at the beginning of the twentieth century, was referenced many times in my indexing course and by indexers and publishers. There are other style guides, aimed at specific types of publications, such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association style guides, but CMS stands out as the go-to guide for most publishing people.

When I began indexing, the 16th edition of CMS was being used, and the latest edition, the 17th, was published in 2017. I have both the 1,146 page-tome and the 64-page indexing chapter excerpt of the 17th edition. I like that the indexing chapter is published as a thin stand-alone volume, complete with its own index. Because of its size, this pamphlet-like manual can sit on my desk, under my planner, for easy reference.

As I learned to index, I was surprised to discover that the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), then in its 16th edition, declared that articles should be inverted when indexing a title—that is, put at the end of the title, preceded by a comma. This rule was maintained in the 17th edition as well. Using this rule, 16.51, the complete list of children’s books by Roald Dahl[1] would be displayed like this:

B
BFG, The (Dahl), 82

C
Champion of the World Danny, The (Dahl), 75
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl), 64
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Dahl), 72

E
Enormous Crocodile, The (Dahl), 78
Esio Trot (Dahl), 90

F
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Dahl), 70

G
George’s Marvellous Medicine (Dahl), 80
Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The (Dahl), 85
Gremlins, The, 4

J
James and the Giant Peach (Dahl), 61

M
Magic Finger, The (Dahl), 66
Matilda (Dahl), 88
Minpins, The (Dahl), 91

T
Twits, The (Dahl), 80

V
Vicar of Nibbleswicke, The (Dahl), 91

W
Witches, The (Dahl), 83

If the titles appear as subheadings in an indented index, under the author’s name (Roald Dahl), they would appear as follows:

D
Dahl, Roald

BFG, The, 82
Champion of the World Danny, The, 75
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 64
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, 72
Enormous Crocodile, The, 78
Esio Trot, 90
Fantastic Mr. Fox, 70
George’s Marvellous Medicine, 80
Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The, 85
Gremlins, The, 43
James and the Giant Peach, 61
Magic Finger, The, 66
Matilda, 88
Minpins, The, 91
Twits, The, 80
Vicar of Nibbleswicke, The, 91
Witches, The, 83

If the titles appear as subheadings in a run-in index[2], the author’s heading would be:

D
Dahl, Roald:

The BFG, 82; The Champion of the World Danny, 75; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 64; Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, 72; The Enormous Crocodile, 78; Esio Trot, 90; Fantastic Mr. Fox, 70; George’s Marvellous Medicine, 80; The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, 85; The Gremlins, 43; James and the Giant Peach, 61; The Magic Finger, 66; Matilda, 88; The Minpins, 91; The Twits, 80; The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, 91; The Witches, 83

In all these “index excerpts”, the alphabetization is the same. The key difference is the inversion of the article: it’s present in all these examples, except in the run-in index. There, the article is kept at the beginning of the title, and the article is ignored in the alphabetization. The case made by the CMS is that by inverting the articles, the alphabetization list isn’t as jarring. An exception is made for the run-in index (last example) because, according to the CMS, it should appear in its normal position because “the inversion would be clumsy and unnecessary.” The CMS did state that the preference is for inversion in all other cases because it makes for “easier alphabetic scanning.”

I’d like to make the argument that since students in the United States are already taught how to alphabetize titles by ignoring the article, the inversion appears clumsy and unnecessary in all instances.

NISO indexing standard

While I follow most of the indexing conventions of The Chicago Manual of Style when a publisher follows this style manual, this is one rule that I regularly break if the publisher doesn’t specifically state this preference. And I am not alone in breaking this rule. Many other indexers do the same for the same reason—it seems archaic and out of style. In fact, the ANSI/NISO indexing standard 11.4 recommends the opposite of the CMS: “Initial articles in any language are ignored in sorting titles, first lines, topical subject terms, and names of corporate bodies.”

Ignoring the article

Here’s how the titles would appear in one of my indexes (if the publisher doesn’t specify otherwise):

B
The BFG (Dahl), 82

C
The Champion of the World Danny (Dahl), 75
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl), 64
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Dahl), 72

E
The Enormous Crocodile (Dahl), 78
Esio Trot (Dahl), 90

F
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Dahl), 70

G
George’s Marvellous Medicine (Dahl), 80
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (Dahl), 85
The Gremlins (Dahl), 43

J
James and the Giant Peach (Dahl), 61

M
The Magic Finger (Dahl), 66
Matilda (Dahl), 88
The Minpins (Dahl), 91

T
The Twits (Dahl), 80

V
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke (Dahl), 91

W
The Witches (Dahl), 83

Permission to stretch CMS rules

I don’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of being defiant. Rather, I only break them to serve the reader better. I think in all cases, seeing “The” at the end of a title, preceded by a comma, is more jarring and, yes, (using CMS’s words) as opposed to seeing articles ignored in alphabetization.

After all, this is the way children were taught to alphabetize, and I like to think that students do remember “rules” taught to them during their

In the preface to the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, Russell David Harper cites this maxim from the very first edition of the manual: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.” In the case of inverting articles in titles, I have stretched (pun intended) this indexing title rule beyond recognition, but I think it’s with good reason. It aligns better with how we were taught to alphabetize titles. In the CMS preface, Harper closes with, “We also continued to benefit from the many helpful comments and suggestions sent to us by our readers…”

I may have homeschooled my kids and break CMS rules occasionally, but I’m not a rebel at heart. Instead of blatantly breaking this specific style guideline of the CMS, I realize that I’d rather be part of the system that helps change the rules. Now I’m going to pen a note to the editors of CMS to see whether this rule, broken consistently among indexers, can be modified. I’ll keep you updated!

What do you think? Do you have a preference?


[1] I included the complete list of children’s books written by Dahl because I couldn’t decide which to include in a shorter list. I couldn’t bear to leave any out! And since I chose to list the complete list of Dahl’s children’s books, I might as well be thorough. For added fun, just add “19” in front of the page number following the title and you’ll know the year the book was published. Here’s one more fun tidbit: When I was compiling the list of Dahl’s children’s books, I found out that Dahl also wrote screenplays. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for the family movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! And here’s some more trivia: that movie is based on the book of the same name written by the author of the infamous James Bond series—Ian Fleming. Like Fleming, Dahl also wrote books for adults.

[2] A run-in index is an index where the subheadings appear on the same line as the heading, and “run on” without a line break. Instead, subheadings are separated by semi-colons.

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