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How to Format a Bulleted List (and More)

Once you’ve decided on a list, you have to make a few formatting choices.

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #484

 

We all know that vertical lists are a great way to display information in print and online. For example, this grammatically correct sentence works fine—To survive the zombie apocalypse, you should stay calm, find allies, and keep moving—but it’s more memorable when it’s presented as a list:

To survive the zombie apocalypse, you should

  • Stay calm
  • Find allies
  • Keep moving

Bullets, numbers, and letters

Once you’ve decided on a list, you have to make a few formatting choices. 

Use bullets when the order of the items doesn’t matter. For example, I used bullets in the last example because you have to continually stay calm and keep moving, and you will find allies whenever you can. It doesn’t matter which thing you do first, last, or in the middle. 

When the order isn’t important, I usually list the items alphabetically or in some other way that seems to make sense. In the zombie apocalypse example, I listed the goals starting with the least active (stay calm) to the most active (keep moving). 

Numbers are typically reserved for instances in which the items in the list need to happen in a specific order. For example, you could use numbers to list the tasks, in order, that are required to protect your hiding place in the mall while you sleep:

1. Wipe down the entrance to your hiding place

2. Place noisemakers such as tin cans across the doorway

3. Retreat inside

4. Cover the secondary entrance to block all light and sound

5. Ensure that your flamethrower is within reach

6. Lie down to sleep

Letters aren’t often used in vertical lists. They tend to make your list look like a multiple choice quiz question.  

The introductory sentence

If your lead-in statement is a complete sentence, use a colon at the end to introduce your list (see the numbered list example above). On the other hand, if your lead-in statement is a sentence fragment, don’t use a colon (see the bulleted list example above). 

Many people feel that the introductory statement looks wrong without a colon. It’s easy to solve the problem by rewriting it so that it’s a complete sentence.

Three steps will help you survive the zombie apocalypse: 

  • Stay calm
  • Find allies
  • Keep moving

Capitalization

After you’ve completed the introductory sentence, your next question will be whether to capitalize the first letter in the list items.

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 to capitalize the first letter—it’s a style choice. The most important thing is to be consistent. I prefer the capitalized style because I believe it looks better and because it’s easier to remember to capitalize everything than it is to remember to capitalize complete sentences and use lowercase for sentence fragments.

Punctuation

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.

Zombies’ primary goal is to eat brains, but they also have other goals you may be able to manipulate: 

  • They want to stay warm. 
  • They are attracted to crowds (both zombie and human). 
  • They fear elevators.

If your list items are single words, very short sentences, or sentence fragments, you can choose whether to use terminal punctuation. The important thing is to be consistent. 

Finally, your text will be easier to read if you don’t put commas or semicolons after the items, and don’t put a conjunction such as and before the last item. All of these things are unnecessary clutter. If you find yourself wanting to format it this way, it probably means you should write it as a sentence instead of a list.

Parallelism

Now that you have the mechanics down for lists, don’t forget to make sure all 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, start every bullet point with a verb.

If you look back, you’ll notice that all the example lists in this article use parallel structure. Here is an example of how a list looks when it incorrectly mixes structures.

Zombies’ primary goal is to eat brains, but they also have other goals you may be able to manipulate:

  • Staying warm. [fragment]
  • They are attracted to crowds (both zombie and human). [declarative sentence]
  • Avoid elevators. [imperative sentence]

Style

Although these are good basic rules, many of these points are subject to whims of style, meaning different editors will want them handled different ways. If you follow a specific style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, check the guide before deciding how to format your lists. 

A version of this article originally appeared in Office Pro Magazine.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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