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How to punctuate lists

By Mary Morel | August 2016

Punctuation bulleted and numbered listsThere are several different styles for punctuating a bulleted or numbered list, and the main thing is to be consistent. If your organisation has a preferred style, use that. If you can choose your own style, please don’t use semicolons – they really are very old-fashioned!

Punctuation with full-sentence lists

Lists that are made up of full sentences are easy to punctuate. They are introduced with either a colon or full stop and each point has normal sentence punctuation. The Chicago Manual of Style online says: ‘Chicago’s preference is to use a colon, but there are times when a period might better serve.’

Which do you prefer? I usually use a colon, but agree that a full stop sometimes works if the bullet points are paragraphs rather than single sentences.

Punctuation with run-on lists

In run-on lists, each point relates back to an introductory stem statement. Once upon a time, many of us probably used semicolons at the end of each point, then added ‘and’ to the second-to-last point and a full stop after the last point. Each point started with initial lower case.

This style is not common in business writing these days, and I don’t see commas used instead of semicolons as end punctuation.

The next style to evolve makes sense. Each point starts with an initial lower case and the only end punctuation is a full stop after the last point.

Unfortunately, Microsoft Word defaults to an initial capital, so many people started using initial capitals but retained the final full stop. Some people have dropped the final full stop because it looks odd.

No wonder we see so many different styles!

Which of the three following styles do you prefer?

Style 1: Initial lower case and a final full stop

In summary, you should:

  • introduce a run-on list with a colon
  • start each point with lower case
  • have a full stop after the final point.

Style 2: Initial capitals and a final full stop

In summary, you should:

  • Introduce a run-on list with a colon
  • Start each point with an initial capital
  • Have a full stop after the final point.

Style 3: Initial capitals and no end punctuation

In summary, you should:

  • Introduce a run-on list with a colon
  • Start each point with an initial capital
  • Have no end punctuation

Adding extra information to bullet points in lists

When you want to add extra information to a bullet point that connects to a stem statement, you need to think about your punctuation. While it is acceptable to have an additional sentence with no full stop, it looks odd.

If you are going on holiday you need to:

  • Consider the weather. You may need to take an umbrella
  • Pack sensibly
  • Travel light

If the extra information is short, you can avoid this problem by using a dash or putting the additional information in brackets.

Before you travel overseas, remember to:

  • Make sure your passport is current – you have to pay a premium to get a passport in a hurry

or

  • Make sure your passport is current (You have to pay a premium to get a passport in a hurry.)

Lists with single words or short phrases

I recommend using the same style for both short and long lists.

A knowledge of first aid is useful for:

  • school children
  • parents
  • travellers.

A knowledge of first aid is useful for:

  • School children
  • Parents
  • Travellers (with or without a full stop)

Grammatical consistency is essential in lists

Whatever style you use, make sure that each point relates grammatically with the stem statement. You should be able to read each point with the stem statement and it forms a sentence.

In the following list, the last point is grammatically inconsistent with the stem statement.

When signing up new clients, you must:

  • Enter them into the database (verb)
  • Open a new file (verb)
  • Management notification (should be ‘notify management’)

Learn more

Styles, such as punctuation in lists, are important because they reflect your brand. My online course, Styles for Business, is written for Australian and New Zealand small-business owners.

An A to Z of Punctuation is written for anyone and a US version is available on request.

Both are just $39 and you have access for one year.

 

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