Index vs. Concordance

Hi, everyone! As promised, today’s column topic is about the similarities and differences between an index and a concordance. A popular question professional indexers get is “Why do I need you to index my book for me? Can’t computers do that?” The answer is, not really—or at least, not well.

Last time I explained what an index is, but this time I would like to explain what an index is not. An index is not a concordance—an unanalyzed list of words or phrases which appear in a book. There are computer programs on the market today that can do this, but is this an index? No. The Chicago Manual of Style’s definition of a good index mentions that it “records every pertinent statement made within the body of the text. The subject matter and purpose of the book determine which statements are pertinent and which peripheral.” Which, of course, can only be known by a human and not by a computer.

Although it is probable that many of the entries in an index are identical to the words used in the text, there are many more instances in which the human indexer must manipulate the text in order to:

  • be more concise

  • put the most important word in a phrase first

  • provide other search terms that may lead the reader to more information on a similar topic

  • organize entries into main headings and subheadings, pulling together similar concepts coming from different parts of the book

These are all examples of ways that an indexer can make an index as easy as possible for the reader to find everything in the book that is important, all in alphabetical order.

Let me give you an example. Recently I indexed a health-food cookbook which included the following four recipe titles:

  • Savory Mediterranean Chickpea Soup
  • Spicy Hummus in Toasted Pita Loaves
  • Lentil Stew
  • Pasta e Fagioli Soup

Now, had a computer created a concordance instead of a human creating an index, none of these recipes would have landed under an entry for beans, even though in all four recipes, beans are a main ingredient! In addition to that, two of the recipes would have landed in entries that no reader would ever look under—“savory” and “spicy”—hummus would not be a subentry for “chickpeas”, and the hummus in pita recipe would not be a subentry for “sandwich”. I’m pretty sure my computer doesn’t speak Italian either! The other thing that concordances cannot do is create cross-references (directing the reader from one search term to another) or double-posts (creating identical entries under multiple search terms)—in this example, since hummus is made out of chickpeas, recipes for hummus would be under entries for both “hummus” and “chickpeas” as well as “beans”. Make sense? Great!

In All About Indexing #4, we’ll talk about the history of index creation. Until next time!

Shoshana Hurwitz
Hurwitz Indexing