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Formatting Vertical Lists

Today's topic is how to format lists.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
November 10, 2011
Episode #057

Page 4 of 4

Web Bonus: Examples

For the following reasons, I feel bad for people who don't visit the website:

  • They will miss this Web bonus.

  • They don’t see all the other great Quick and Dirty Tips shows.

If people came to the website, they could

  • See the Web bonus. It's an extra learning tool that was too long to put in the podcast.

  • Sign up for the newsletter. It comes by e-mail every week, has a free grammar tip, and includes links to other Quick and Dirty Tips articles.

  • See the videos. Videos are another great way to learn.

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).

Parallelism

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

  • Attending lectures

  • Reading books

  • Seeing sights

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

  • Attending lectures

  • Books

  • 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.

 

Buy Mignon’s New Book Today: 101 Words to Sound Smart.

References

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).

Notes

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.

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How to Use Parallel Construction Correctly

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