Alphabetizing the reference list according to the APA rules

Sort the reference list in alphabetical order.

Begin with the surname of the first author of a source. The first author is the author who is named first in a source; this isn’t necessarily the author the first letter whose surname appears earliest in the alphabet.

Sometimes you run into problems because, for example, you have multiple publications from the same author or authors with the same surname.

Rule 1

Alphabetize letter by letter, and remember “nothing comes before something”.

Example 1: Alphabetize letter by letter

Swaen, G., comes before Swaenen, K.

Pater Ab, T., comes before Pater Batel, A. K. S.

Mascherano, B., comes before Mascher-Beno, T. S.

Rule 2

A prefix like M’, Mc and Mac are taken as spelled and not as sounded out.

Example 2: Prefix like M’, Mc and Mac

MacArthur comes before McAllister

MacNeil comes before M’Carthy

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Rule 3

For sources with just one author, you sort based on the publication date of the source, listing the oldest source first.

Example 3: The same and only author with two publications

Swaen, B. (1996).

Swaen, B. (2012).

Rule 4

Sources with one author come before sources with multiple authors, when the first author is identical between the two source types.

Example 4: One author comes before multiple authors with the same first author

Swaen, B. (2012).

Swaen, B., & Driessen, K. (1999).*

*Even if the publication date is earlier, one author still comes before multiple authors.

Rule 5

For multiple-author sources listing the same first author, but with different second and third authors, sort based on the second author. If the second author is the same, then sort based on the third author. And so on, per author.

Example 5: Sort based on second author, third author and so forth

Swaen, B., & Driessen, K. (2004).

Swaen, B., Laak, R. van, & Schweinsteiger, B. (2003).

Woziaski, B. J., Totti, F., & Mascherano, K. (2009).

Woziaski, B. J., Totti, F., & Vidal, P. (2006).

Rule 6

For sources with multiple identical authors, sort by publication date, as in Example 3 for single authors. The oldest source comes first.

Example 6: Sort based on second author, third author and further

Totti, F. J., & Schweinsteiger, B. (1999).

Totti, F. J., & Schweinsteiger, B. (2005).

Rule 7

For sources with the same author(s) and the same publication date, you alphabetize based on the title of the source. Pay attention! Don’t take prefixes into account (like A, The, An, etc.).

Example 7: Sorting sources based on title

Totti, F. J., & Schweinsteiger, B. (2005). Better home than away.

Totti, F. J., & Schweinsteiger, B. (2005). A view to a kill.

Exception to Rule 7

If the sources are articles in a series of multiple articles, then sort the sources bases on this series (Part 1, Part 2 and so on). Place lowercase letters a, b, c and so on directly after the year.

Example Exception to Rule 7: Articles based on a series

Totti, F. J., & Schweinsteiger, B. (2005a). The semifinals explained.

Totti, F. J., & Schweinsteiger, B. (2005b). The finals explained.

Rule 8

If different first authors have the same surname, then sort based on the initials of the first names. Also note these initials in source referencing in the text.

Example 8: Different first authors with same surname

Totti, F.J. (2010)

Totti, K.J. (2009)

Rule 9

Alphabetize of (n.d.) and (in press) when you have the same author with a publication date.

Example 9: No date and in press

Totti, K.J. (n.d.)

Totti, K.J. (2009)

Totti, K.J. (in press)

In conclusion

  • When the author is not a person but an organization, this doesn’t change the order of the reference list. You still sort based on alphabet.
  • You write out abbreviations of organizations before you alphabetize them.
  • Only if the author is listed as ‘Anonymous’ do you use ‘Anonymous’ as author’s name.
  • If there is no available author, then record the title of the source in place of the author.
  • When the name of the author/company begins with a number, you need to treat the number as if though it is written out. Thus, if you alphabetize a source such as 6 Flags, you alphabetize it under the ‘S’ of ‘Six’.
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Bas Swaen

Bas is co-founder of Scribbr. Bas is an experienced academic writer and loves to teach. He helps students by writing clear, simple articles about difficult topics.

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May 6, 2019 at 11:46 PM

Thanks, am much grateful


November 17, 2017 at 10:16 PM

This is helpful, but I have a question regarding organizations as authors when the name of the organization starts with "The," (e.g. The National Institutes of Health). I have been leaving "The" at the front of the organization name, but locating it in the reference list under the first "meaningful" word. (So if the author cited The National Institutes of Health, I would alphabetize it in the reference list as though it were National Institutes of Health, but I have kept it listed as The National Institutes of Health.

Somewhere I found something that said one should alphabetize by the first "meaningful" word, but I'm not sure I'm doing this correctly. I know that in the example I've given, most people drop the "The," but I think there are some organizations and foundations that can be pretty picky about insisting on being referred to with the "The" at the front of their name.

Do you know the correct way to list such entities in the reference list?

Thank you.


Wouter Koekoek
Wouter Koekoek (Scribbr-team)
November 21, 2017 at 4:00 PM

Hi Colleen,

Thank you for your question. I would advise you to take the official name of the organization. So look on their website if they're referring to themselves for example as The National Institutes of Health or just National Institutes of Health.

Good luck!



simon talatu
July 17, 2017 at 1:29 PM

i really enjoy this page it help me to write my reference


Lucy Vleeshouwers
Lucy Vleeshouwers (Scribbr-team)
July 27, 2017 at 4:22 PM

Thank you Simon!


Josephine Naftal
May 11, 2017 at 1:54 PM

I was having assignment and this page help me a lot thank you


Anna Hoogterp
Anna Hoogterp (Scribbr-team)
May 16, 2017 at 4:42 PM

Thank you Josephine!

Cheers, Anna


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