Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 8 20:15:13 UTC 2011

Charles C Doyle wrote:
>> Yesterday my daughter-in-law called me with a question about my third-grader grandson's homework. Â The assignment was to alphabetize a list of words, and the list included the four items girl/girl's/girls/girls'. Â (My daughter-in-law made clear than both the academic career of my grandson and the family's standing in the community were at stake, since the parents of the other third-graders were also depending on my answer.)

The question "How would you alphabetize the words girls, girl's and
girls'?" was asked at the Yahoo Answers website in 2006 though I would
not place any confidence in the answer.

This may be a question on a quiz that is shared between teachers. It
might be a "stunt" question where the teacher does not expect a
specific answer, and the goal is to teach about conflicting
conventions and answer justification. Look at the other questions to
gather contextual information.

Here are some suggestions if the teacher does desire a specific
answer. Try to determine the arbitrary convention that the teacher
expects the students to follow.

1) The solution desired may have been specified in the textbook for
the class. Ask the student if the topic was discussed in the textbook
or examine it yourself. Of course, the class may not have a textbook.
Class notes? Handouts?

2) Ask if the teacher discussed this topic in class. Did the student
hear anything about alphabetizing during class? Did the student hear
anything about special characters like apostrophes or hyphens?

3) If you cannot determine the convention that the teacher wants then
select two or three. Explain each convention and then include an
answer according to each convention. You and Arnold discussed a
Microsoft/ASCII convention. Unfortunately the most common convention:
"ignore the apostrophe" is ill-defined and yields ambiguity.

Continuing Charles Doyles question and Arnold Zwicky's response:
>> I failed. Â I could tell her that there exist various styles of alphabetizing, that certain traditional "rules" obtain, one of which is "Ignore apostrophes"--but the rules I am aware of don't fully address the case at hand. Â I could tell her that if the Microsoft Corporation is asked to "sort" the words alphabetically, they will appear in the order in which I have listed them above, which seems reasonable--but not, as far as I can determine, "authoritative."
>> Any suggestions? Â (I donï¼µ recall that third grade used to be this hard!)
> this strikes me as an absurd assignment for any grade, but certainly for the third grade.
> the assumption seems to be that there is a single right way to do alphabetization, while in fact there are many competing styles of alphabetization, with accompanying "rules". Â letter-by-letter vs. word-by-word? Â disregard capitalization or order upper case before lower case or order lower case before upper case? Â treat numerals as coming before alphabetic characters, or after them, or as if they were spelled out in letters? Â disregard punctuation or order punctuation marks before alphanumerics (or after them)? Â treat the prefixes Mc and Mac as equivalent or as ordered letter-by-letter? Â disregard internal spaces, or extend "nothing before something" to the case of internal spaces? Â and so on.
> i believe that the Microsoft ordering is character-by-character, following ASCII order: as a result, nothing comes before something, and punctuation marks (like the apostrophe, ASCII 39) come before alphabetic characters (which start at ASCII 65, with upper case before lower case). Â this gives the ordering of the four words above.
> this scheme is definitely *not* traditional, but it has the virtue of always giving a clear answer without human judgment; it's eminently automatizable. Â the results are not always attractive; for instance, the algorithm doesn't disregard initial _the_, _a_, or _an_ in titles, since these are just character sequences.
> The traditional rule "ignore punctuation marks" doesn't discriminate between _girls_, _girl's_, and _girls'_, so that either you'd have to tolerate random orderings or call a special rule into play just for cases where the general rule fails to provide a unique ordering.
> arnold
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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