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Wordnerdery Sue Horner’s monthly tips on words and ways to reach readers – August 2021

Issue 102 – August 2021

Bullet Protocol: How to handle lists

“Don’t overdo [lists]. You want your post to look like an article, not a grocery list.” – Grammarly
Numbered list by Sam Karanja on Pixabay.

Putting long and possibly confusing information into a list helps readers scan and understand the information. But there are multiple ways to use punctuation in lists, as I was reminded while proofreading a client document that used all of them.

Various style guides have contradictory advice, so my suggestion was to be as consistent as possible. Then, naturally, I went looking for official answers and best practices for lists. Here’s what I found:

1. Save lists for three or more items

Choose what you want to emphasize, says Nielsen Norman Group. Lists shorter than three items work better within a sentence, especially if you’re using numerous other lists in the same article or page. Grammarly agrees; “Don’t overdo it. You want your post to look like an article, not a grocery list.”

And try to avoid lists within lists. The more you use, the harder your reader will find it to read. If you must use them, make sure the bullet style is different for each level, such as small circles, filled squares, checkmarks or dashes.

2. Introduce your list with a colon

Some guides say a period is fine, most others insist on a colon (:). Whichever you choose, be consistent.

3. Follow a parallel structure

The Canadian Press Stylebook and other style guides agree that bullets should be grammatically parallel. So if you start one bullet with a noun or verb, start every one with the same, like these examples:

4. Leave out punctuation and capitalization in short bullets

In short bullets with few words – fragments, not full sentences – you can safely leave out punctuation and capitalization without hampering readability, says the CP Stylebook. For example:

Word will automatically turn your lowercase letters into capitals as you create a list, but that’s okay. Capitalizing the first letter is your style choice to make. Just be consistent.

5. Use punctuation with full sentences

If your list contains full sentences or longer material, start each with a capital letter and end each with a period.

6. Use numbers only if the sequence or count is important

Save numbering your lists for those where the items must be in a specific order, such as steps to take, or when keeping count is important, such as a top 10 list, says Nielsen Norman Group.

7. Treat your list as one long sentence (or maybe not)

If your bulleted list is one long sentence, style books say each item in the list should start with a lowercase letter and finish with a semicolon. Like Dr. Clare Lynch in “How to punctuate bullet points,” I find this old-fashioned and visually cluttered, especially with lengthy bullets. But, your choice. Here's an example.

8. End your list with a period

However you have used punctuation throughout your list, close it with a period at the end.

9. Check if your organization follows a style guide

Consult your organization’s style guide if you have a question. No guide? Pick a style and be consistent.

Keep in mind that often the whole point of using bullets is to make something easy to scan and read. Will adding extra punctuation or a mix of styles support that?

Did you ever imagine there were so many rules for lists? Do you agree or disagree with any of them? Please hit "reply" and let me know.

Feedback on the July issue of Wordnerdery:

  • Chip Scanlan: “Great post on making sense of numbers. I savored every word. As a reporter I could definitely have used your post and I'm sure it will be embraced by your subscribers. The tips were spot-on and the examples illuminating. It's a gem.”
  • Michael Katz: “Love those examples! For some reason, in grammar school, they were always comparing things to African elephants. Like, ‘this weighs as much as 7 African elephants.’ Which never made sense since, as you point out, I don't really have a sense of how much an African elephant weighs!”

Related reading:

Grammar Girl looks at formatting “vertical lists”

Nielsen Norman Group has 7 tips for presenting bulleted lists

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