Formatting Vertical Lists

Today's topic is how to format lists.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #057

Introductory Colons

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.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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