Formatting Vertical Lists

Today's topic is how to format lists.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #057


bulleted listMost 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).

Bulleted Lists

If you're going to use a list, the first question to ask yourself is what kind of list you should use.

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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

  • Chocolate bars

  • Graham crackers

  • Marshmallows

  • Pointy sticks

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.


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