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How To Order Surnames

A photograph of the M section of a bookshelf, featuring Maria McCann and Daphne Du Maurier

I thought I’d use today to compile my research on a topic I expect a few of you might appreciate – how to order surnames that aren’t your stereotypical spellings, in other words your Mcs, Vans and O’s. I know I’ve had trouble deciding where to place them and have opted to go with the flow, but here is what I’ve discovered:

  • Mac and Mc are traditional patronymics; both mean ‘son of’. Mc is essentially the same as Mac and should be treated as though it has an invisible ‘a’. Both Mac and Mc should come before any surnames that start with ‘Mad’.
  • Van or Von, if not capitalised by the person (look at the book cover), should not be treated as part of the surname. If they are capitalised they come before the surname and affect ordering.
  • D’ – ordering depends on the next letter of the name.
  • O’ – ignore the apostrophe when ordering.
  • De, Le, Du – These are more open to personal interpretation. De – before surname when the surname has only one syllable. Du – under ‘du’, though most people will put ‘Du Maurier’ under M. All are usually written as lower case. The issue with ‘de’ and ‘le’ and ‘du’ is that you need to consider the person’s preference which of course may be difficult to ascertain. It also depends on the language you’re dealing with as well as the nationality. Spain may view ‘de’ differently to France, for example, and an inherently British person with a French surname may view it differently than a French person who shares it with them.
  • Double barrelled surnames, if hyphenated, should go under the first of the two names. If not hyphenated they go under the second. Check the hyphens and remember that some names may actually be the middle names.

I’ll end here on that preference: if all else fails, check the Internet and opt for the most commonly used. Even if not technically correct, you’re less likely to confuse your own readers.

How do you order your shelves?


Jenny @ Reading the End

May 15, 2015, 1:41 am

Having worked for three publishing houses now that use the Chicago Manual of Style as a guide, and letter-by-letter alphabetization, I always look for the “Macs” and “Mcs” as they’re spelled, letter by letter alpha. And that’s how I do my shelves as well. I get cross when my library doesn’t conform to my style.

(The most frustrating thing about my library, truly, is when it’s inconsistent. Emily St. John Mandel is under Saint-J, though she’s said Mandel is the surname and “St. John” is the middle name and my Chicago Manual of Style heart would put her under “stj” if St. John WERE the first part of the surname; but “macanything” comes before “madding” and “mcanything” after it. Bah.


May 15, 2015, 1:45 pm

I’ve volunteered in libraries all my life, so I know these rules of ordering, but with computers putting Mac before Mc in some systems, it’s becoming difficult to find things. A good computer catalog would list them properly, but them the people who shelve them at the store or library have to know the rules.


May 16, 2015, 4:09 pm

Sadly I don’t have enough shelves to have this problem. My poor books are squeezed in where ever there is some space. Although I have had the problem on my blog before of how to order Daphne du Maurier, D or M.


May 16, 2015, 11:33 pm

Why are Mac and Mc treated the same? What is the logic behind the idea of the invisible “a”? I know the history of the name, but I refuse to sort by imaginary letters. Mac before Mad, Mc after it.

I was glad to learn of the rules behind Van and van, and the double barreled surname issue, though. That confirms that Diana Wynne Jones goes under J.


May 19, 2015, 5:01 am

You put your books in order! Not so much here. They are generally lumped by category across a dozen (literally) bookshelves around our house, but no particular order on the bookshelves. I’m sure a better organizing system would make things easier to find – maybe it will happen someday. :-)


May 19, 2015, 12:01 pm

Very interesting! I didn’t know any of this and the Mac vs Mc bit surprised me.

I think if I were ordering by surname (which had I the room, I would) I would order them by how I would remember them, so I think regardless of the rule Mac and Mc would need to do together, but du Maurier would go under D.



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