Setting out information in a list can sometimes be the clearest way to help your reader engage with and understand your message. There are conventions and best practices for how to punctuate and style a list, and this post explains them, step by step.
If there’s a particular aspect of how to punctuate a list that you want to read about, you can jump to it by clicking in this list.
- Why should I use a list?
- What types of list are there?
- What is an in-text or run-on list?
- What is a displayed list?
- A quick word about the serial, or Oxford, comma
- Related content
Why should I use a list?
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 the 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 text with subheadings to guide your reader through the structure of your writing is always a good idea. Using lists is another way of making your content easier to engage with and more accessible, so your reader is more likely to stay on the page.
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 above; more specifically, it’s a bullet list.
What is an 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.
What is a 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.
It’s much easier to absorb the information when it’s presented this way, don’t you think? However, to make it as easy as possible for your reader there are six other things to consider when you use a displayed list.
1 The introductory text to a displayed list
In my previous example, the line before the list is a fragment of an entire sentence that includes the items in 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.
Notice how there are five words repeated at the start of every bullet point, making the essential information harder to spot.
If we move the repeated words from the bullet points back into the introductory text this makes the points much punchier and the message clearer, as the bullet list now only contains the essential information.
We ask parents to make sure that players:
- understand the code of conduct
- arrive with full kit
- bring their match fee.
Some lists can be introduced by a complete sentence and consist of complete sentences, like this next one.
There are several things to bear in mind when writing blog posts.
- The content must be engaging and solve a problem.
- You should write your blog posts for your ideal client.
- Avoid being too formal – make it sound like you’re talking to your reader.
- Direct your reader’s next steps with a call to action.
2 The punctuation at the end of the introductory text
Look at the example lists so far. You can see that the punctuation at the end of your introductory text can be
- a colon
- a full stop
- absent, as in this example.
This is generally a matter of preference, with the exception of an introductory sentence fragment, which should not be followed by a full stop. Your decisions about styling lists should be applied consistently throught your writing, so make sure you note you preferences in your style guide.
However, you should not introduce a list with a comma, a semicolon or a dash.
3 Should I use bullets or numbers in a list?
Generally speaking, you should only use numbers if the items in the list must come in a specific order; for example, when you’re decribing a process or sequence of events or listing instructions. Recipes or flat-pack furniture manuals are good examples of this.
To make an omelette*:
- Break two eggs into a bowl.
- Whisk eggs lightly and season.
- Pour into hot pan.
- Cook until set.
Otherwise, you should stick to bullet points, squares, ticks or whatever you like the look of. I prefer plain bullets as they do the job and don’t distract your reader from the point you’re making.
*Important: never take recipe advice from an editorial website. This is to illustrate a point only!
4 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.
5 What end punctuation should list items have?
For lists that 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.
To make a cup of tea you need:
- boiling water;
- milk; and
To make a cup of tea you need:
- boiling water
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 the New Oxford Style Manual, and I prefer to leave it out, as in List B.
6 Are the list items parallel?
By this I mean does it make grammatical sense if you read the introductory fragment and an item from the list 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:
When I go on holiday I like to staying in a boutique hotel.
It’s always worth checking that each item in your list works with the introductory text, by reading them together as a single unit.
A quick word about the serial comma
The serial, or Oxford, 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.
Of all the variable to consider when thinking about how to punctuate a list, this one is proabably the most contentious!
Whether or not to use a serial comma will spark long, tedious and at times heated debates 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 isn’t ambiguous if I omit the comma after Barcelona.
I’m not precious about it, though, and of course I’ll use it if it’s your preferred style and you’re my client. It’s your writing and your style guide, and you’re paying me to follow it.
I’ll always use a serial comma if there’s any possibility that the list could be open to misinterpretation. Here’s an example for you.
My favourite cafes are Singl-end, Kember and Jones and Bennu.
What are the three names in this list?
- Kember and Jones
- 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 Singl-end, 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 a list in your copy.
I hope the options you have for how to punctuate a list are clearer to you now. Just remember: whatever you decide, be consistent!
Over to you
What do you think? Has this helped you get a better picture of how to punctuate a list?
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 word you have trouble remembering how to spell correctly, or a grammar point you’re not clear on, or a punctuation mark you’re not sure about, drop me a line, or tweet me using the hashtag #WorryFreeWriting.
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