Confused about punctuation in bullet lists?

Photo Credit: DerPoschist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DerPoschist via Compfight cc

A while back, the folks at Write in New Zealand talked about punctuating bullet lists. The post caught my attention because their practice is refreshingly straightforward.

  • If the stem sentence and the list items are all complete sentences, we punctuate with an initial capital and a full stop.
  • If the stem sentence is an introductory phrase or clause, followed by a list, we start each list item with a lower case letter, and leave end punctuation off each item but the last. We give the last one a full stop. In essence, we see the list as a run-on sentence, with white space taking the place of punctuation between each item in the list.
  • If the stem sentence is followed by a simple list of single words, we don’t punctuate any of the list items.

Need a reminder of the complexity of most guidelines for punctuating bullet lists? Here’s an example from Daily Writing Tips.

  • If each of the items in a bullet list completes a sentence begun with an introductory phrase, the first letter of the first word of each item should be lowercase, and the last word should be followed by terminal punctuation (a period, question mark, or exclamation point), as in the preceding bullet list.
  • The format in the previous list, however, is not recommended for items consisting of less than a few words, unless listing multiple items as a run-in list in a sentence would produce a ponderously long sentence.
  • If all list items are complete sentences, they should follow an introductory statement ending with a colon, as in this bullet list.
  • If all list items are incomplete sentences, they can follow an open introductory phrase or one ending with a colon; in the latter case, the first letter of the first word in each item should be uppercase.
  • The first letter of the first word of each complete sentence should be uppercase, and complete sentences should include terminal punctuation.
  • All items in a list should have the same format — a word a phrase, or a complete sentence — and should follow the same grammatical structure.
  • If every item in a list begins with the same word or phrase, try to incorporate the word or phrase into the introductory phrase or statement, then delete it from the list items.
  • Avoid creating a bullet list in which one or more items consist of very long sentence or more than one sentence; if this is the case, it’s better to use traditional sentence form.

Arrrgh!

The major style guides are just as complex. The 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (I don’t have a copy of the most recent edition) included five pages on lists, four of them devoted to “vertical” lists (aka bullet lists). I admit that there is some useful guidance about lists NOT related to punctuation (e.g., list types, parallelism, etc.) APA Style incorporated information on bullet lists only within the past couple of years.  Here’s an example of “correct” punctuation a la the APA.

Each child was seated at a separate station and given
●  an elephant, which all children could see but not touch in Experiment 1;
●  a kangaroo, which half of the children could see but not touch and half of the
children could both see and touch in Experiment 1; and
●  a giraffe, which was new to all children in this experiment.

If the folks at Write didn’t edit anything else in the APA example, they would leave off the semi-colons, as well as the conjunction and, creating a less visually dense text.

Each child was seated at a separate station and given
●  an elephant, which all children could see but not touch in Experiment 1
●  a kangaroo, which half of the children could see but not touch and half of the
children could both see and touch in Experiment 1
●  a giraffe, which was new to all children in this experiment.

The Write guidelines eliminate visual clutter like that found in bullet lists punctuated according to the complex rules of most “specialists.” And the guidelines themselves are simple enough to handle the vast majority of writing tasks in the workplace. 

4 thoughts on “Confused about punctuation in bullet lists?

  1. I like Write’s guidelines (not punctuating and letting the visual cue mark the movement to a different point). However, from my vantage point, capitalizing the first word in a phrase or the word (sometimes) in a bulleted list is more visually appealing. It just looks better to me. How do you like that “logic”? Whatever we choose to do (within reason), it’s important to be consistent, and style guides or handbooks are not.

  2. Thanks for the mention of our bulleted list style. At Write, we encourage using bulleted lists when appropriate to make content easier to absorb. So it makes sense to have a less cluttered style for lists — and to make that style easy to apply.

    Our website has more writing tips: write.co.nz

  3. Spot on with this write-up, I seriously think this web site needs a
    great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through
    more, thanks for the info!

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