Elegant Subentries, Part I: What Is a Subentry?

Elegant Subentries, Part I: What Is a Subentry?

The American Society for Indexing (ASI) book Index It Right! Advice from Experts, Vol. 2, edited by Janet Perlman and Enid L. Zafran, opens with an article on creating elegant subentries. Elegant subentries? Just what is an elegant subentry?

First off, what is a subentry?

The Hunt for a Definition

I had to look in the index of Hans Wellisch’s classic Indexing from A to Z, 2nd ed., to figure out where to find subheadings, as he calls them. In his index they’re found just after “sub-subheadings.” Ummm, that’s not how my alphabet works.

Ahhh, the Wellisch index is using the ISO word-by-word sorting (alphabetization), in which a hyphen is the same as a space, and so “sub-subheading” is essentially “sub subheading” and comes before “subheading.” My word-by-word sorting is per Chicago (The Chicago Manual of Style), in which hyphenated compounds are treated as one word; in my world “subheading” comes before “subsubheading.”

And then I see in the Wellisch index under “sub-subheadings” the page range 149-140 in the midst of orphan locators after the main heading. A main heading that has subheadings (or subentries) shouldn’t have page numbers after the main heading, except perhaps for a main topic discussion page range, which is what 149-140 is supposed to be. Those other single page references are “orphans” that should have been put under some subentry, perhaps at least using the subentry “mentioned” for minimal information on a page.

The “sub-subheadings” page range of 149-140 should have been 141-151, where we have a discussion of the display of subheadings. This makes me wonder why the page range is after “sub-subheadings” but nowhere to be found under “subheadings.”

Even the second edition of a classic indexing book has troubles with its index.

Anyway, I finally find the “defined” subentry under “subheadings”:

subheading. A modifying heading subordinated to a main heading in a multilevel heading.

Well, that was worth it, wasn’t it?

The Hunt for a Definition (continued)

Speaking of second edition indexing classics with troubled indexes, Nancy Mulvany’s classic Indexing Books has a couple errors in its index. One is an indexing error (a nonidentical acronym double-post where both entries are in the same column of text) and the other is most likely the publisher’s (incorrect alpha break).

Other than that, all is right with the world in this index: Mulvany’s index has “subheadings” before “sub-subheadings,” but then she’s published by the Chicago people. For her definition of subheadings, she quotes Wellisch’s definition. She then goes on to tell me that I’m an “other writer” for referring to subheadings as subentries.

The Hunt for a Definition (continued)

I’ve always loved the title of G. Norman Knight’s classic book Indexing, The Art of. I’m capitalizing that as I see it on the cover. If it were up to me, you’d see Indexing, the Art Of.

He tells me that the subheading is the text, which along with its page references forms the subentry.

The Hunt for a Definition (continued)

Linda Fetters, in her book Handbook of Indexing Techniques: A Guide for Beginning Indexers, 3rd ed., adds the fact that subheadings indicate different aspects of the main heading. She spends pages detailing the relationship between subheadings and main headings and reminds us that the key word should be first. She then exhorts us to combine related subheadings into one subentry.

With that much good subentry information, it is no surprise that Do Mi Stauber contributed to this book–according to the title page, but it’s not readily apparent where her contributions are when looking at the table of contents or the index. If you flip through the pages, eventually you reach Chapter 4, Jewels in the Cavern: The Special Challenges of Scholarly Indexing, by Do Mi Stauber.

I point this out because Do Mi Stauber wrote the ever so excellent Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing. This chapter in Linda Fetters’s book could well have led to Facing the Text.

Facing the Text by Do Mi Stauber

Do Mi Stauber’s book is copyright 2004 and already a classic among indexing books. She takes us inside an indexer’s brain as she analyzes text content and determines how to index it. While providing specific, concrete suggestions, Do Mi maintains a broad, theoretical stance throughout the book, in contrast to the Sherry L. Smith and Kari Kells book Inside Indexing: The Decision-Making Process, which follows two indexers as they index the same book, Eben Fodor’s text, Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community.

Facing the Text introduces Do Mi’s First and Second Rules of indexing (it’s the Second Rule that has to do with subentries). Her First Rule of indexing is that if you start indexing a topic, you’d better continue to index every reference to that topic. This sounds obvious; its main lesson lies in index heading word choice: If you word an entry too broadly, you could end up with a too-massive entry by the end of the book.

Do Mi’s Second Rule states that the purpose of a subheading is to break down a main heading. This has become an axiom in indexing.

The purpose of a subheading is to break down a main heading.

A subheading does not exist to note an important aspect of the main heading. If it’s an important aspect, it likely needs its own main heading. The job of subheadings is to make the index user’s life easier by best breaking down all the page references under that main heading into manageable chunks.

Do Mi illustrates this nicely on pages 128 to 130. She first gives the following entry without the page numbers so that you can see that its subentries seem fine. I’ll save space and present the version with page numbers, then its improved version:

The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), 28-48
Catholicism in, 28
characterization in, 28-29
film adaptation, 30-48
good vs. evil in, 28
influence on fantasy genre, 29
nature description in, 29
popularity of, 29

There’s an obvious problem here. The indexer selected themes as they appeared in the text, and so has an abundance in the 28-29 page range and then one subentry covering pages 30-48. This is not helpful to an index user. A more helpful version of subentries that properly breaks down their main heading is:

The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien), 28-48
film adaptation, 44-48
influence of, 28-32
style in, 33-38
themes in, 39-44

And then Do Mi explains it succinctly:

Look carefully at these two groups of subheadings. The difference between them is not in the kinds of subheadings or the ways in which they connect to the main heading. It is not in the importance of the topics addressed. The difference is in the ways the subheadings divide up the information in the text. Do Mi’s Second Rule is meant to remind us that the purpose of subheadings is to break down the main heading.

We’ll next figure out how to make those subentries elegant.

See more articles on indexes and indexing at my website: SueTheIndexer.com.