Episode 57: November 10, 2011
The podcast edition of this article was sponsored by Intelligent Editing. Try their free online consistency checker and make your documents better: http://intelligentediting.com/onlinechecker.
Most of the grammar books I own only partially address vertical lists. One book discusses capitalization, another partially discusses punctuation, and so on. Only the Chicago Manual of Style gives the topic the respect it deserves.
Experts have raised valid concerns that people overuse lists in PowerPoint presentations (1) and for presenting complex information (2), but the scant attention to lists in most style guides has always baffled me because you can hardly open a Web page, marketing brochure, or user manual without walking smack into a list. Marketing experts and Web designers know that most people visually scan these kinds of simple or instructional documents instead of reading every word, and that lists improve a scanner's ability to remember key points (3, 4).
If you're going to use a list, the first question to ask yourself is what kind of list you should use.
Bullets are just big dots, and you use them to make a bulleted list when the order of the items doesn't matter. For example, you could use bullets to list the items you want everyone to bring to a beach party. I wish I were in Santa Cruz right now. I'd have a party and make s'mores.
Everyone would need
When the order isn't important, I usually list the items alphabetically or in some other way that seems to make sense. The list in the s'mores example is alphabetical, but if I called the pointy sticks something that didn't fall at the end alphabetically, I still would have grouped all the food items together and put sticks at the end. In marketing materials, you probably want to put your most important product feature or selling point first.
Numbers are reserved for instances where the items in the list need to follow a specific sequence. You could use numbers to list the step-wise tasks that are required—in order—to start up a piece of machinery, for example. To turn on your old laptop
1. Open the cover.
2. Push the start button.
3. Make tea while all the applications load.
Finally, letters are useful when you're implying that readers need to choose individual items or when items don't need to follow a specific sequence, but you want to refer to an item later. For example, punctuation in lists can be tricky. You have to consider
Letters make sense with that list because the order doesn't matter. Bullets would work just as well, but if you wanted to refer to the items again later, using letters could help readers easily find the list item when they look back through the text. If you mention a letter later in your text, enclose it in parentheses (e.g., Item (b) was about periods.)
You can use capital or lowercase letters for your list, but the typical style is to use lowercase letters. The most important thing is to be consistent.
Letters are also often used when you have a list in which the items don’t need to be in a particular order, but you want to keep them in a sentence instead of listing them vertically. The letters can call extra attention to each list item (5), but if you’re putting in letters to separate list items in a sentence, you should also ask yourself if it might be easier for your readers to digest the material if you listed the items vertically.
After you've decided what kind of list to use, the next decision you’ll face is how to punctuate the statement that comes right before your list. Should you use a colon? A comma? Nothing?
If your lead-in statement is a complete sentence, use a colon at the end to introduce your list.
On the other hand, if your lead-in statement is a sentence fragment, I recommend that you don't use a colon. Some style guides agree with me, but a few don’t (see notes 1 and 2, below). To me, it makes sense that if you wouldn’t put a colon between the introductory element and the list items if they were together in a sentence, you shouldn’t put one there just because it’s a vertical list.
After you've completed the introductory sentence, your next question will be whether to capitalize the first letter in the statements that come after your bullets, numbers, or letters.
If your list item is a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter. If your list item isn't a complete sentence, you can choose whether or not to capitalize the first letter—it's a style choice. The only thing that is important is to be consistent. I capitalize the first letter of everything in lists because it's easier to remember “capitalize everything” than it is to remember “capitalize complete sentences and use lowercase for sentence fragments.”
With capitalization covered, you're on to your items, and at the end of the first one you have to decide what kind of punctuation to use.
If your list items are complete sentences, or if at least one list item is a fragment that is immediately followed by a complete sentence, use normal terminal punctuation: a period, question mark, or exclamation point.
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If your list items are single words or sentence fragments, you can choose whether to use terminal punctuation. Again, what's important is to be consistent. I don't use terminal punctuation after single words or sentence fragments. I think periods look really strange after things that aren't sentences.
Finally, don't put commas or semicolons after the items, and don't put a conjunction such as and before the last item when you are listing items vertically (see note 2, below). These elements do make sense when you’re using letters to call out list items in a sentence (5).
OK, now that you've got the mechanics down for lists, don't forget to be a good writer and make sure that all of your list items are parallel. That means each list item should be structured the same way. They should all be fragments or they should all be complete sentences. If you start one bullet point with a verb, then start every bullet point with a verb. Here's an example of a list that uses parallel construction:
For Aardvark, a vacation involves
Each bullet point is formed the same way.
On the other hand, even though the following list is grammatically correct, it's considered poor writing because the list items aren't parallel.
For Aardvark, a vacation involves
Many trips to famous destinations
Again, that's an example of bad writing because the list items aren't parallel.
Much of This Comes Down to Style
Many of the points I've covered are style issues, meaning that I've run across multiple books and online style guides that make different recommendations. My recommendations are based on my assessment after checking about 20 different grammar handbooks and style guides and on what seems logical to me. For example, I didn't find any source that discussed how to order items in a bulleted list, so I made up the recommendation to write them alphabetically because it seems to be the best solution. However, if your organization has a designated style guide, be sure to check it to see if your house style differs from any of my recommendations.