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Worry-free Writing: how to punctuate lists

Why should I use lists?

How do you feel when you’re faced with a wall of text? It’s a turn-off, isn’t it? The effort needed to focus on the content can be too much, so you flick past the page, or click away if you’re online. No matter how entertaining, educational or thought-provoking your content, if it’s not inviting to look at, no one is going to hang around long enough to read it. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel that way about your content. Breaking up your text with subheadings to guide your reader through the structure of your text is always a good idea. You can also use lists to help people understand the content of your writing more easily. Knowing the options for how to punctuate lists correctly will bring consistency and clarity to your content.

What types of lists are there?

There are two types of lists you can use in your writing:

  • an in-text, or run-on list
  • a displayed list.

That’s a displayed list up there; more specifically, it’s a bullet list.

The in-text or run-on list

An in-text list follows the same rules as any other sentence and should be punctuated in the same way.

At its simplest, it would look like this:

Team meetings are held at 8.30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

However, when the elements of the list are longer or more complex, or the elements themselves contain commas, it can be clearer to introduce the list with a colon and separate each item with a semicolon, like this:

The advisory panel comprises three members: Anne McKinnon, CEO of McKinnon Lafferty; Chris Widlund, finance director of Platinum Performance Solutions; and Hazel Patey, vice-president of Dougan, Lavety, Morris and Partners.

This is fine for short, simple lists that are easy to digest. But if you’re conveying a lot of information, or giving instructions, it will be much clearer for your reader if you use a displayed list.

The displayed list

A displayed list takes the items from the list and displays them vertically. So, the second example of run-on lists, above, would look like this:

The advisory panel comprises three members:

  • Anne McKinnon, CEO of McKinnon Lafferty
  • Chris Widlund, finance director of Platinum Performance Solutions
  • Hazel Patey, vice-president of Dougan, Lavety, Morris and Partners.

Much easier to absorb the information, don’t you think? However, to make it as easy as possible for your reader there are a few other things to consider when you use a displayed list.

The introductory text to a displayed list

In my example, the line before the list is a fragment of an entire sentence that includes the list.  Try to make your introductory text as complete as possible to avoid needless repetition at the beginning of each point. Look at this hockey club’s message to see how repetitive a list can be.

We ask parents:

  • to make sure that players understand the code of conduct
  • to make sure that players arrive with full kit
  • to make sure that players bring their match fee.

Now see how removing the repetition makes the points much punchier and the message clearer.

We ask parents to make sure that players:

  • understand the code of conduct
  • arrive with full kit
  • bring their match fee.

Introduce your list with a colon, never a comma or dash.

Should I use bullets or numbers in a list?

Generally speaking, you should only use numbers if the items must come in a certain order. Recipes or instruction manuals are a good example of this. To make an omelette*:

  1. Break two eggs into a bowl.
  2. Whisk eggs lightly and season.
  3. Pour into hot pan.
  4. Cook until set.

*Important: never take recipe advice from an editorial website. This is to illustrate a point only! Otherwise, stick to bullet points. Or squares. Or ticks. Or whatever you like the look of. I prefer plain bullets: they do the job and they don’t distract your reader from the point you’re making.

Should I start list items with a capital letter?

If the items in your list are complete sentences they should start with a capital letter. However, if your displayed list items are sentence fragments, as in my example of the hockey club’s message, the whole fragment should be lower case, i.e. no capital at the beginning, unless the first word is a proper noun.

What end punctuation should list items have?

For lists which are not complete sentences, punctuation between the items in a list is a matter of style that the author or publisher will decide.  If there is no consistency and no style guide, an editor will choose how to style the lists. After each item you can have a comma, a semicolon or no punctuation. Given the choice, I always go with no end punctuation as I prefer a cleaner look. Look at Lists A and B to compare using end punctuation and not.

LIST A
To make a cup of tea you need:

  • boiling water;
  • teabags;
  • milk; and
  • sugar.
LIST B
To make a cup of tea you need:

  • boiling water
  • teabags
  • milk
  • sugar.

In List A there is also an and at the end of the penultimate item, but the use of and or or in this way is not recommended by some style guides, such as New Hart’s Rules, and I prefer to leave it out, as in List B. Are the list items parallel? By this I mean does it make grammatical sense if you read the introductory fragment and an item on its own? Have a look at this example. When I go on holiday I like to:

  • travel in comfort
  • staying in a boutique hotel
  • try the local food.

The first and third items pass the test, but the second item in that list reads as:
When I go on holiday I like to staying in a boutique hotel.

A quick (!) word about the Oxford comma

The Oxford, or serial, comma is one which is placed before the final and or or in a list that has three or more items:

I’ve lived in London, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires.

Whether or not to use it will spark a long (tedious and at times heated) debate among editors. There are firmly held views for and against. And so there’s no such thing as a quick word about it! In my opinion, I think it has its place to avoid ambiguity, but I don’t use it if the meaning is perfectly clear without it; my example sentence doesn’t become ambiguous if I omit the comma after Barcelona. I’m not precious about it, though, and of course I’ll use it if a client’s style guide dictates it. It’s their writing and their style guide, and I’m paid to follow it. And, of course, I’ll use a serial comma if there’s any possibility that the list could be open to misinterpretation. Here’s an example for you. What are the three names in this list?

My favourite cafes are Tinderbox, Kember and Jones and Bennu.

Option A

  • Tinderbox
  • Kember and Jones
  • Bennu
Option B

  • Tinderbox
  • Kember
  • Jones and Bennu

Unless you’ve been to Glasgow and know the cafes I’m writing about, you’ve no way of working out the correct names unless I use a serial comma. The correct answer is Option A:

My favourite cafes are Tinderbox, Kember and Jones, and Bennu.

For your own writing, once you’ve decided whether to use a serial comma in every list or only for clarity, record it on your style sheet (you do have one, right?). If more than one person writes copy for your company it’s important everyone knows what the serial comma is and how it is to be used.

So there you have it – an overview of the main things to think about when you’re using lists in your copy.

I hope the options you have for how to punctuate lists are clearer to you now. Just remember: whatever you decide, be consistent. Happy listing!

Check out these posts for more from my Worry-free Writing series:
How to use apostrophes
How to use hyphens & dashes
How to use a semicolon
How to use an ellipsis
What is a style sheet and do I need one?

Over to you!

What do you think? Has this helped you get a better picture of how to manage lists? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and any suggestions you might have for other topics to include in my Worry-free Writing series. If there’s a grammar point you’re not clear on, or a punctuation mark you’re not sure about, hit the button below and drop me a line. That’s how this post started!

Here’s my suggestion, Denise!

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