Table of Contents and Index Synergy

by Nancy Humphreys on February 4, 2015

I’ve often wondered why indexers are not called upon to create the table of contents (TOC) as well as index for non-fiction books. Often we find ourselves at the end of the line wishing we didn’t see so many mistakes in a book and wondering how we can deal with them.

One big mistake is a lack of book title integrity. Another is a table of contents that doesn’t convey the big picture of the books’ contents. And then there are chapter subheadings that don’t make sense or are missing altogether.

Joy_of_SigningLet’s look at an example today: The Joy of Signing: A Dictionary of American Signing by Lottie L. Riekehof, PhD (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2014, 3rd ed.)

Lack of title integrity

The royal-blue cover of the 3rd edition of this bound book announces “Over 1 Million Copies Sold”. The book has several useful appendices and an informative preface. It’s a great textbook for both Signed English (used by hearing people) and American Sign Language (used by deaf people).


Reikehof’s The Joy of Signing: A Dictionary of American Signing is NOT a dictionary!

When we pick up almost any other language dictionary we expect to find two parts: an alphabetical list of foreign words with English equivalents and an alphabetical list of English words with foreign equivalents.

However, American Sign Language (ASL), like Chinese, is not based in letters of the alphabet. Chinese people use symbolic characters to indicate words; deaf people use symbolic hand shapes, some of which involve movement, along with facial expressions.

Still, one half of this book could be in alphabetical order. That half would be an alphabetical list of spoken-English words followed by their equivalent ASL hand signs. Is that what The Joy of Signing includes? No.

The Joy of Signing, like many other ASL textbooks, uses broad categories, such as family relationships, time, and emotion and feeling for its chapters. Chapters include diagrams of ASL hand signs within each category, along with spoken-English word equivalents for each hand sign.

Unlike alphabetical arrangements of spoken-English words, there’s no commonly-agreed-upon list of categories for teaching ASL. Every ASL textbook uses its own categories, and these categories are not in alphabetical order.

Furthermore, the individual hand signs within each categorical section of The Joy of Signing aren’t arranged in alphabetical order either.

So, what IS in alphabetical order in The Joy of Signing? Its index!

This arrangement of The Joy of Signing is great for teaching ASL, but having the student to go to the back of a 348-page bound book each time one wants to look up a word and then flip back to the page where the equivalent hand sign can be found is time-consuming and tedious.

To be fair, Reikefhof calls this list a “Vocabulary Index”. She knows that no reputable indexer would call an alphabetical list of English words, followed by a single page number an index. 

Indexers to the rescue

How could indexer have helped the author make a book like The Joy of Signing serve as both a dictionary and a textbook? Here’s how:

(1) The Table of Contents. The TOC should  list prefatory discussions in the book. These would be followed by a chapter called, “Alphabetical List of Spoken-English Words”. Next there could be a chapter called “Categorical List of ASL Hand Signs”. The categorical chapter would refer the reader to the Index in the back of the book.

Appendices will be listed next. And finally, the Index.

(2) Alphabetical List of Spoken-English Words. This section is for looking up ASL signs. Each spoken-English word would have a thumbnail image of its hand sign, and could show brief English-language phrases or sentences to clarify the meaning(s) of the hand sign if needed.

If a hand sign has multiple English-language words connected with it, the second, third, fourth, etc. spoken words can be included in the alphabetical section with a See cross-reference to the first (primary) word. This will save space.

(3) Categorical List of ASL Hand Signs. Categories help in learning ASL signs. If spoken-English phrases or sentences are included to explain meanings of a hand sign, they should be worded in the grammatical order a native deaf speaker would use. (Deaf people use a different grammar than hearing people.)

Categories should focus on signs that (a) occur near a particular area of the body, e.,g actions involving the fore head (mental actions) or mouth (food and dining), (b) use the same hand-sign shape, e.g,  straight hand, thumb, or bent hand, or (c) often-used distinct categories such as food, colors, and numbers.

(4) Index. The index should use an author’s categories as a guide when creating main headings. Subheadings would be the names of the hand signs within each category. Page references should be made to both the Alphabetical and Categorical Lists since each contains different types of grammatical examples.

If several words describe a single hand sign, the index should contain See also cross-references from the subheading(s) for the secondary terms to the primary (first) term e.g., Size:  little.

See small

Yes, this breaks a cardinal rule of indexing—never use a cross-reference from a subheading. However, in a book with 5 or 10 hand sign thumbnails per page, the reader will be able to find the hand sign they want more quickly

Now the book serves as both a dictionary (the Alphabetical List) and a textbook (the Categorical List). The two halves of the book complement each other, and the table of contents and index work synergistically to provide the user with the best access to the contents of the book.

Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

Learn more »

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: