Formatting Vertical Lists
Today's topic is how to format lists.
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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.
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.
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1. Atkinson, K. “Why BulletPoints and PowerPoints Don't Mix.” May 31, 2004. http://www.beyondbullets.com/2004/05/the_future_hist.html (accessed May 23, 2007).
2. Tufte, E. “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science--And Better Techniques for Technical Reports.” September 6, 2005. http://urltea.com/1eeg (accessed May 23, 2007).
3. Ruel, L. and Paul, N. “Eyetracking Points the Way to Effective News Article Design.” USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, March 13, 2007. http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/070312ruel/ (accessed May 23, 2007).
4. Nielsen, J. “How Users Read on the Web.” Alertbox, October 1, 1997.http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html (accessed May 23, 2007).
5. McAdoo, T. “Lists, Part 3: Lowercase Letters,” APA Style Blog, February 23, 2010 http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2010/02/lists-part-3-lowercase-letters.html (accessed November 5, 2011).
1. The Chicago Manual of Style, Grammatically Correct, and The Little Penguin Handbook state that colons shouldn’t follow statements that couldn't stand on their own as complete sentences. Bill Walsh says to use a colon after sentence fragments that precede lists in his book Lapsing Into A Comma, as does the Yahoo! Style Guide. Punctuate It Right states that if your list is introduced by a statement that ends in namely, for example, for instance, or that is, you can use a colon if the items in the list are each complete sentences.
2. The Chicago Manual of Style says commas are optional in some lists and allows the conjunction and after the penultimate list item if you are using semicolons at the end of each list item and closing the last item with terminal punctuation, but I find this style cumbersome.