Pragmatics of authors-name order

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Tue Feb 24 16:20:33 UTC 2004

I appreciate Arnold Zwicky's discussion (copied below), which raises an
important topic that is rarely discussed. But I'm wondering if he is merely
reporting on unwritten rules as he has internalized them, or if he is referring to
rules that have been codified in written form by some authoritative source. In
any case, I am grateful to Arnold for raising a question that is both of
practical value to academic professionals (such issues have real relevance in
promotion-and-tenure decisions)--and which is interesting linguistically in its own
right as a question of pragmatics and discourse analysis.

I certainly agree with Arnold that it is too simple merely to assume that a
multiply-authored article or book is "really" the work of the first author and
that the others "just helped" a bit. However, it does seem more than a little
PRESCRIPTIVE of Dr. Zwicky to call the practice a "vulgar error" that requires
"correction"--especially given the common practice of citing works with "et

The truth is that it is generally impossible to know what the order means.
Even if there are some academic standards that are explicitly agreed on (and
these would have to be in writing somewhere), a number of different factors
(including the possibility that the authors decided to use an alphabetical listing)
may be at work, as Arnold points out, and the criteria are almost never made
explicit in the texts themselves to resolve the ambiguity. (The only common
exception to this that I can think of is if the second author is designated as
"with", which in fact usually means that the second author did the real writing
of a work that is a biography and the first author, a celebrity furnished the

Even an alphabetical listing is ambiguous: we can't be sure that the authors
are following the alphabet rule or one of the other rules in a situation in
which it JUST HAPPENS TO BE THE CASE that the most important author (or the one
with the grant, etc.) has an early-alphabet last name.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that it just is not true that the
first-is-most-important rule does not operate among scholars. I know at least
one linguist of no little note who publically stated under oath that at least
one scholarly work that he published with other scholars was author-listed out
of alphabetical order so as to give prominence to the name of the one author
who was a graduate student, in order to give a little boost to his career.
And, as Arnold notes himself, some of the own bi-authored works in which his name
appears first (i.e., out of alphabetical order) have been interpreted by a
number of people--not just the "vulgar" and "uncorrected"--as meaning that his
contribution is the greater one. Also, I know of scholars who frequently write
papers together who rotate the order of the listed names in attempt to
counteract the impression that the work of either one is more important than that of
the other.

As we all know, the question of the relative pragamatic importance of items
in a series has been fairly extensively studied by psycholinguists. The results
are complicated, but in general the first and last places (as one might
expect) are the most memorable. It seems to me pretty clear that the problem arises
in this case because people are inclined to folliow the pragmatic rule that
tells them that the first has to be the most important unless they are told
otherwise. (I have actually heard people in tenure cases say things like, "Well,
how many of the articles did she write as FIRST author? She is just the second
author on most of them." If her name is "Butters" rather than "Zwicky" this
can be especially damning, as Arnold suggests below).

I wonder if it might not be a good idea for the American Dialect Society and
the Linguistic Society of America to take an official stand on this
matter--unless a stand has already been taken we don't know about.

Ron Butters (whose last name comes way way at the other end of the alphabet
from Zwicky, but who has suffered with Arnold nonetheless).

In a message dated 1/28/04 8:58:04 PM, zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU writes:

<< i was astonished to see CHOICE referring to a co-authored book as the
work of the first listed author.  undergraduate students do this a lot,
and i always correct them.  (at least some of them genuinely believe
that books and articles *really* have just one author, who's listed
first; the others are just people who helped in some way.  this belief
undoubtedly arises from their own experience in research and writing,
which almost never includes true collaboration.)  maybe i'm
oversensitive, since the very common scheme of listing authors in
alphabetical order almost always puts me last, but attributing a joint
work to its first-listed author is a vulgar error.

it *might* be that the CHOICE reviewer reasoned that since the authors
of this book were listed out of alphabetical order, with feinman before
clapp and mckean, feinman must have been the principal author.  it is
true that authors are sometimes listed in order of descending
contribution -- this is the case for Elizabeth Zwicky, Simon Cooper,
and Brent Chapman, Building Internet Firewalls -- but there are many
other reasons for non-alphabetical orderings (the lab director or
principal investigator on a grant is often listed first, even if this
person contributed little to the project), and even in
descending-contribution orderings the difference between the
contributions can be pretty slight.  (i've come to regret the ordering
Zwicky-Pullum that appears on some of our joint works, since it
suggests that my part was *much* more important than geoff's.  if you
stick to alphabetical ordering, no such ranking is implicated.)

surely reviewers for CHOICE should understand that you can't conclude
much from the ordering of names, and even if a reviewer is ignorant,
copy editors should have caught the error and fixed it.

arnold (zwicky at, at the end even in the American
   article by Zwicky & Zwicky -- Ann D. Zwicky & Arnold M. Zwicky >>

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