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How to alphabetize “a,” “an,” and “the” in APA Style references

Cite this
McAdoo, T. (2022, February 23). How to alphabetize “a,” “an,” and “the” in APA Style references. APA Style.

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Most reference list entries begin with an author’s surname, so ordering a reference list alphabetically is usually a breeze. If you have questions about how to order works in the list, see Sections 9.43 to 9.49 in the Publication Manual, which address many common situations.

One question we receive from time to time is how to alphabetize reference list entries starting with “a,” “an,” or “the,” and we’re here to help!

Dear Style Expert,

I am citing a work written by a group author (The Smithsonian Institution)—Do I put that reference in the list in the “T”s for “The” or in the “S”s for “Smithsonian” (ignoring the “The”)?

Great question! We ignore the three nonsignificant words (“a,” “an,” and “the”) at the beginning of an author name for the purposes of alphabetizing.

In this example, “The Smithsonian” is alphabetized in the “S”s in the reference list:

Raskin, E. (1978). The Westing game. Avon Books.

The Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). Our organization.

Steinbeck, J. (1939). The grapes of wrath. Penguin Books.


  • Parenthetical citations: (Raskin, 1978; The Smithsonian Institution, n.d.; Steinbeck, 1939)
  • Narrative citations: Raskin (1978), The Smithsonian Institution (n.d.), and Steinbeck (1939)

You might also run across this in the rare case when a work you are citing has no author. In those cases, the title moves to the beginning of the reference, and you should “alphabetize the entry by the first significant word of the title (i.e., ignoring the words ‘A,’ ‘An,’ and ‘The’ at the beginning of the title)” (American Psychological Association, 2019, p. 306).

In this example, “The Beatles” is the title of the Wikipedia page and is alphabetized in the “B”s in the reference list:

Adams, D. (1992). Mostly harmless. Harmony Books.

The Beatles. (2022, February 8). In Wikipedia.

Clarke, M. J. (2014). Branded worlds and contracting galaxies: The case of Star Wars Galaxies. Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media, 9(3), 203–224.


  • Parenthetical citations: (Adams, 1992; “The Beatles,” 2022; Clarke, 2014)
  • Narrative citations: Adams (1992), “The Beatles” (2022), and Clarke (2014).

Quotation marks are used for “The Beatles” in the in-text citations because “The Beatles” is the article’s title, not an author name.

And, there’s at least one more case where this guideline might apply. If you have two references with the same author(s) and date, alphabetize them by the titles of the works. There, too, ignore “a,” “an,” or “the” at the start of either title.

In this example, because the name and dates match, the references are alphabetized by the title, and The Irishman appears first because “Irishman” appears alphabetically before “Rolling”:

Scorsese, M. (Director). (2019a). The Irishman [Film]. Tribeca Productions; Sikelia Productions; Winkler Films.

Scorsese, M. (Director). (2019b). Rolling thunder revue [Film]. Grey Water Park Productions; Sikelia Productions.


  • Parenthetical citations: (Scorsese, 2019a, 2019b)
  • Narrative citations: Scorsese (2019a, 2019b).

The letters “a” and “b” are added to the dates so that a reader can differentiate the two references.


American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.).