Word by word – definition and meaning

Word by word is a method for entering items or themes onto a list, such as in a dictionary or manual, according to words rather than letters in the alphabet. It is an alphabetizing method in which each entry is arranged according to the word(s) contained in the term, item, or theme entered.

For example, ‘Stock Control’ is followed by ‘Stock Inventory’ rather than ‘Stocking’, even though strictly speaking – in a letter by letter method – ‘Stocking’ should come before ‘Stock Inventory’.

BusinessDictionary.com has the following definition for ‘word by word’:

“Alphabetizing method in which entries are arranged in the sequence of their words and not letters according to the axiom ‘nothing comes before something.'”

“For example, ‘linear function’ is followed by ‘linear market’ and not by ‘linearity.’ In the letter-by-letter method ‘linear function’ is followed by ‘linearity.'”

Word by word vs letter by letter

As you can see in this image, in the ‘word by word’ system all the multiple-word entries that start with ‘San’ appear before those that start with ‘Santa’. In the ‘letter by letter’ system, the space is ignored, each entry is treated as one long word, so ‘SantaMaria’ comes before’ SanTomas’ and ‘SanVictor’.

Word by word vs. letter by letter

When some entries consist of more than one word – they contain hyphens, spaces or other separators – two basic approaches are taken when deciding in which order to place them.

The First Word Decides:

This is word by word – all strings are ordered initially according to the first word entered, as in:

San, San Cristobal, San Diego, San Victor; Santa Barbara…

In this case, all strings starting with the separate word San precede all multiple-word entries starting with Santa, because San comes before Santa in the alphabet.

Alphabetizing ignores spaces:

This is letter by letter – all strings are alphabetized as if there were no spaces, which would give the following sequence:

San, San Cristobal, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Victor…

San Cristobal, San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Victor are treated as if they were written SanCristobal, SanDiego, SantaBarbara and SanVictor (with no spaces).

Word by Word – advantages

If the list is used regularly, it makes sense to have them listed with a ‘word by word’ system if the terms entered next to each other are looked up simultaneously. If ‘Stock Control’ and ‘Stock Inventory’ are often looked up at the same time, having them next to each other leads to better efficiency.

The people who enter the items onto the list need to make sure that their system is consistent, otherwise the whole thing can become one big mess.

Fortunately, listing systems can be set up in Microsoft Excel and other programs which make sure the entry system remains consistent.