5 Rules for Run-In Lists

By Mark Nichol

When brief lists appear within a sentence — technically, these are called in-line lists — they’re often complicated by excessive punctuation. Here are some errors in construction of in-line lists, and their corrections, to illustrate a few simple rules:

1. “Sugarcane has been able to flourish in the Everglades thanks to the flood-control project; tariff and import policies such as the Cuban sugar embargo; and subsidies and price controls that keep sugar expensive for Americans.”

Even if the items in a list consist of phrases rather than simply a word or two, commas, rather than semicolons, are sufficient to separate them: “Sugarcane has been able to flourish in the Everglades thanks to the flood-control project, tariff and import policies such as the Cuban sugar embargo, and subsidies and price controls that keep sugar expensive for Americans.” Use semicolons only if one or more list item itself includes internal commas; even then, the grammatical structure may make divisions clear.

2. “This profile is not unlike that of the alcoholic, who has mood swings, blackouts, impulsive and self-destructive behaviors.”

If the last item in a list is a pair of subitems separated by and, an and is still required following the penultimate item: “This profile is not unlike the alcoholic, who has mood swings, blackouts, and impulsive and self-destructive behaviors.”

3. “Most of these complaints were not about police brutality, but pertained to issues such as: slow response time, alleged name calling, and age discrimination.”

Just as in bullet and number lists, no punctuation is generally needed preceding the first list item: “Most of these complaints were not about police brutality, but pertained to issues such as slow response time, alleged name calling, and age discrimination.”

Exception: Set the list off from the lead-in phrase with a colon if the latter is an independent clause, as in “Most of these complaints were not about police brutality, but pertained to issues such as the following: slow response time, alleged name calling, and age discrimination.” Such constructions are rarely necessary, however.

4. “The study of the interplay of alcohol and violence covers a broad spectrum of activities ranging from intimate partner violence, brawls at bars, child abuse, and violence at sporting events.”

Items in a list should be grouped logically: “The study of the interplay of alcohol and violence covers a broad spectrum of activities ranging from intimate partner violence and child abuse to brawls at bars and violence at sporting events.” In this case, the list was relaxed, obviating the need for internal commas. Also, notice that to was added to bookend the “ranging from . . . to” completion. When listing proper names or other nouns that have no other obvious organizational scheme, list them alphabetically; chronological order is appropriate when that rationale is obvious.

5. “Each plan would 1) restore the ecosystem, 2) clean up water pollution, 3) ensure water supply for cities and farms, and 4) improve levees to keep us all safe from floods.”

Numbers or letters employed to signal distinct items in a list are superfluous unless the items are complex, in which case perhaps the list should be set off and formatted vertically: “Each plan would restore the ecosystem, clean up water pollution, ensure a water supply for cities and farms, and improve levees to keep us all safe from floods.”

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24 Responses to “5 Rules for Run-In Lists”

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder. I don’t use run-in lists a lot in my writing. These rules will become apart of my ‘go to’ writing tools, particularly rule #5. I’ve been known to use ‘numbers’ as a way to distinguish information.

  • Roberta B.

    ……..not only to distinguish information, but typically to build a case for the basis of a decision. The run-in list often would be used where a bullet or outline list would be incompatible with the format of the report, memo, etc. being presented. Often these documents conclude with an opinion or recommendation. Numbering or lettering each point within a run-in list is very useful to identify points that support or provide heft for the conclusion. So, I say go ahead and use them w/o feeling superfluous.

  • Michael

    Thanks Mark,

    In example 4, I would have put a comma before ‘ranging’, as it seems like a natural place to pause briefly in a moderately long sentence.

    As regards example 5, I agree that numerals are often superfluous, but there may be instances where you want emphasize the points and numbering them (or ‘first(ly)’, etc.) might serve that purpose. Here I agree with Roberta B.

    What say you?

    (Also, I’m not entirely sure I’ve used commas appropriately in the sentences above, i.e., following ‘example 4’ and ‘example 5’. Any tips?)

  • Jo

    Is it common in the US to use a comma before the last item in a list? For example in the sentence given, “Most of these complaints were not about police brutality, but pertained to issues such as slow response time, alleged name calling, and age discrimination.”

    In the UK we don’t use a comma before the final item, where ‘and’ is used instead. The comma is surely redundant in this position. I would have typed the sentence, “Most of these complaints were not about police brutality, but pertained to issues such as slow response time, alleged name calling and age discrimination.”

    If you only listed two items, using ‘and’ to link them, there would be no comma. Surely then, it isn’t logical to use one in that way at the end of a list.

    Examples:

    My cat is brown and white.
    My cat is black, brown and white.
    The rainbow is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just curious.

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    A comma before ranging isn’t wrong, just optional.

    As I mentioned in the post, numbering items in a run-in list, or prefacing them with first, second, or so on, isn’t wrong, but it’s usually unnecessary.

    “In example 4” is brief enough not to merit a comma, but the other introductory phrase is awkward without one, so, for consistency, I would follow each with a comma. (See my post at http://www.dailywritingtips.com/use-common-sense-for-commas.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Jo:

    In the UK, you certainly do use the serial comma, as indicated in the device’s alternate name: the Oxford comma. (Here in the colonies, it’s also been referred to as the Harvard comma.) Those appellations hint that it’s a preference of academic presses, though not popular usage, but most book and magazine publishers favor it. On both sides of the Pond, it’s often a matter of formality whether it appears.

    I prefer it, because sometimes it’s needed to avoid ambiguity; the classic example is the book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” And if you need it sometimes, for the sake of consistency, use it all the time.

  • Michael

    Jo: My understanding (from the The Oxford Manual of Style) is that the use of the comma before the final item is somewhat optional in British English, but preferable where there are more than three items, or where, as Mark says, it serves to minimize or avoid confusion.

  • Michael

    Mark, thanks for your advice.

  • Jo

    Thanks Mark.

    Yeah, I was just reading up on that. Can’t say I’d heard of it before as the Oxford comma or serial comma. Although, in my defence, I’ve spent the last ten years teaching 9 to 11 year olds who struggle to remember full stops and capital letters. Commas are beyond them!

    I would, of course, use it to avoid ambiguity, but in a simple list it still seems redundant. I think I shall follow the examples of The Times and The Guardian here and continue to avoid using it.

  • Jo

    Michael: Yes, I was just reading up on it tonight. (See my reply to Mark, above.) Thanks for your input. I like the idea of it being optional. It’s one less thing with which to confuse the kids in my class.

  • Michael

    Jo: I would love to know how you teach them the difference between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’, and ‘licence’ and ‘license’ in BrE. I grew up with it and it still confuses me!

  • Jo

    Michael: With great difficulty! Some days I’m just happy if they remember to put their name on a piece of work.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    Regarding Jo’s question about the serial (Oxford) comma, two recent examples in print come to mind:

    “Merle Haggard. The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” (Photo caption)

    “At night, with the castle dimly lit by spotlights and the cobblestones dark, it’s easy to let your imagination wander to picture the kings and queens who walked here and the historic figures who died on Tower Green, including two of King Henry VIII’s wives, Sir Thomas More and Lady Jane Grey.” (1/21/11 about.com article)
    🙂

  • Jo

    Cassie: I did mention I would use it to avoid ambiguity. However, in the second example, simply changing the order of names would have removed the confusion.

    “At night, with the castle dimly lit by spotlights and the cobblestones dark, it’s easy to let your imagination wander to picture the kings and queens who walked here and the historic figures who died on Tower Green, including Sir Thomas More, Lady Jane Grey and two of King Henry VIII’s wives.”

    I think it might just be a case of personal preference. I would probably restructure a sentence rather than deal with ambiguity.

    I need to go to bed now and try not to dream about commas!
    🙂

  • Roberta B.

    Elements of Style says: red, white, and blue. The only times I see the comma omitted before “and” is if the writer is over 70 or it’s a legal document. It’s not optional any more…..at least not in AmEng. Over here, you’d be wrong to teach them to omit it.

  • B Rambo

    Speaking of logical groupings, I prefer this construction for #3, and many other lists with “and” within an item:

    “This profile is not unlike the alcoholic, who has mood swings and blackouts as well as impulsive and self-destructive behaviors.”

    B Rambo

  • B Rambo

    Sorry, #2, not #3, above. Numbers: not my strong suit.

  • Mary Hodges

    @ Michael. My own way of dealing with practise/practice etc is to think of “advice” vs “advise” where there is a difference in sound so I never get it wrong.
    eg “This is good advice (noun) and I advise (verb) you to follow it.”

  • Jo

    Roberta B: It’s a good job I’m neither over there nor teaching them, isn’t it? And I’m most certainly not over 70. Far from it.

    B Rambo: I prefer your construction too.

  • Mark Nichol

    B Rambo:

    Re: “This profile is not unlike the alcoholic, who has mood swings and blackouts as well as impulsive and self-destructive behaviors.”

    Yes, your alternate revision of the second half of the sentence is a good idea; I revised a similar sentence for an upcoming post just that way. However — and perhaps this point refers to an inadvertent omission — the sentenced does require the phrase “that of the.” The dictates of parallel structure require that profile match “[profile of the] alcoholic.”

  • B Rambo

    However — and perhaps this point refers to an inadvertent omission — the sentenced does require the phrase “that of the.” The dictates of parallel structure require that profile match “[profile of the] alcoholic.”

    Good point. I thought I copied the sentence as it stood, but I did omit that crucial construction. Proofreading: still a good think.

    B Rambo

  • Frank Elliott

    Roberta B, I have to take issue with your declaration that using the final comma is not longer optional in American English.

    Just about every Journalism school teaches its students to follow AP style, which says to omit the final comma it unless needed for clarity.

  • Roberta B.

    @Frank Elliot OK. So, it’s used in legal documents and by journalism schools, but no one else does unless they’re stuck in the 19th century or following some model that’s close to 100 years old. “Elements” was first published in 1918. So, I should have said that the comma before the conjunction typically is omitted by lawyers, print journalists, and anyone over 93 years old.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    Roberta – I wouldn’t make the blanket statement that the serial comma isn’t used in legal documents. I’ve been in the business of law and legal copyediting for 30 years and have seen plenty of serial commas. 🙂

    I think we all need to keep an open descriptive mind here and realize that to use or not use the serial comma is one of those “rules” that will be followed (or not), depending on personal preference. What matters is that the meaning of the words is clear.

    By the way, consistency also matters to me: that is why I use the serial comma at all times — not only (as some have suggested) to avoid ambiguity.

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