What’s the difference between William Shakespeare’ and ‘Shakespeare, William’ ?

Thank you!

  • 1
    None, except that Anglophones normally use the forename-space-surname sequence in "real life" contexts. The surname-comma-forename sequence occurs more often in (computer-controlled / written) lists and legal contexts - not least because it's often more useful for sorting purposes. Feb 14, 2018 at 13:31

1 Answer 1


In most contexts, we give names as first name - space - last name. But for some reason, when we want to give a list of names in alphabetical order, it is common to make the primary sort to be on the last name, and then only within last name to sort on first name. So in alphabetized lists of names, it makes sense to put the last name first so that the ordering is clear.

For example, we might give a list of names like this:

Arbogast, George
Smith, Albert
Smith, Robert
Smith, Susan
Trenton, George
Verne, Jules
Verne, Lucy

It would be more difficult to see the ordering if the names were written with first name first.

That leaves the question of why it is considered "normal" to sort by last name rather than by first name, but that's the convention.

  • This question ux.stackexchange.com/questions/50030/… mentions last names being likely more distinct that first names as a reason. I'd speculate an added advantage would be to put related family members together (at least in certain contexts that would be beneficial)
    – eques
    Feb 14, 2018 at 16:35
  • @eques If there's some reason why it's desirable to put family members together on your list, then yes, sorting by last name makes good sense. More distinct? Hmm. Sure, there are lots of "John"s and "Mary"s, but if I'm looking for "John Winkowski" I flip to the John section and look for the "John W"s. Not sure why that would be harder than flipping to the "W" last name section. First names ARE more likely to have variations. Someone named "William" may be called "Will" for short, but "Wilton" and "Wilbur" may also be called "Will". And "William" might be called "Bill", etc.
    – Jay
    Feb 14, 2018 at 16:48
  • If you are looking for "John Winkowski", there are more likely to be fewer Winkowski's than John's; that's the point. If you sorted by first name, you'd have to go through a longer list of Johns and also check the Jons and Jonathans to be sure
    – eques
    Feb 14, 2018 at 16:52
  • @Jay It is a convention from many years ago, when the vast majority of people in the English-speaking world shared the same few dozen standardized names, not the thousands of names and variants of today. There were even standardized abbreviations (J., Wm., Tho., etc.) because they were so common. As recently as the 1950s, 25% of all babies born in the U.S. bore one of the top ten most popular names, with classrooms where every third girl was a Mary and every other boy was a Robert or a John. Alphabetizing by first name is hardly worth alphabetizing at all.
    – choster
    Feb 14, 2018 at 16:55
  • "more Johns than Winkowskis" Sure. But why is it harder to sort through many Johns to find Winkowski than to sort through many other W names to find Winkowski, or to search between all the V and Y names to find the "W"s? Once I get to the "John" section, I just ignore the first name and scan through the last names. It would be amusing to do a study of how long it takes people to find a name in a sorted list under various scenarios. (Well, amusing to geeks like me.)
    – Jay
    Feb 14, 2018 at 16:59

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