Proofreading for everyone

Punctured Punctuated lists

Lists are handy. What can a list do?

A list

  • Presents information briefly and memorably
  • Assembles material that belongs together
  • Groups items that contribute to an understanding of something greater

What punctuation is required in a list? Should the list be part of a sentence? Should the items be numbered? Here are some practical guidelines to help you get consistency when you create a list.

What to list

If you mention three or more items separated by commas, you’ve created a list. Even two items make a list if you think they’re important enough (as you’ll see below). You can run the items in with the text or stack them vertically so they stand out, but either way you’ve got a list.

The list as discourse

A list may be part of the conversation, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, I think a list is easier to read as separate items, and you’re not trying to make grammatical sense of it. By its very intention, a list presents items as brevities or nuggets — “bullet points” contributing to a larger picture. The fact it’s a list is obvious and the topic should be described by the introduction or a heading.

Sometimes the list items are quite long, or you might feel they need connecting phrases to be meaningful. In that case, a list is probably not the best way to express the material and you should present it as ordinary writing.

Should you number the list items?

There are just two reasons to use numbers (this list doesn’t meet these requirements):

  • For easy reference to the items
  • When they describe a sequence

Numbers, letters or bullets?

There’s a lot of choice, including numerals, lower-case letters, upper-case letters and Roman numerals. If you choose bullets, the symbols and icons you can use are endless. Similar lists in close proximity should be treated identically. With nested lists (where a list contains a list), you must alternate numbers and letters so the reader can navigate. For the simplest of lists, use no bullet and just a modest indent.

List punctuation

Whether the items begin with a capital or lower-case letter, make them identical. Punctuate each item as a normal phrase, though it may not be a whole sentence. Items don’t need a full stop, but if one item contains punctuation, give them all a full stop for consistency. Only use and before the last item if you’ve made the list part of a sentence and it needs to be grammatically correct.

What ending?

Whatever you like. The end of a list may be marked just by the indent shifting back to normal.

Now here’s a “patience bonus” for those who made it to the end.

Meaning of ‘punctuate’

In the Latin, punctus means a “prick” or “point”, from which comes the idea of “to mark with points or dots,” and hence a “system of inserting pauses in written matter.” I came across a colourful recent mention of punctuation which raises cool new ideas about it.

[P]unctuation is cold notation; it is not frustrated speech; it is typographic code.

— Robert Bringhurst, “The Elements of Typographic Style,” 2004

I like that!

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