5 Rules for Using Logic to Order Lists

By Mark Nichol

At least five factors dictate how items in an in-line list — a series of items within a paragraph, as opposed to a vertical list — are organized. (See an earlier post about in-line lists.) It’s all about the context: alphabetization, chronology, complexity, interrelationship, or sequence. (Guess which context I chose for the preceding sentence.)

1. “Our shop specializes in teak, ebony, and mahogany furniture.”
The store may stock more teak than ebony and more ebony than mahogany, or the order may reflect relative prices, but the sentence does not explicitly or implicitly express either idea. In such ambiguous cases, alphabetical order is an appropriate default setting: “Our shop specializes in ebony, mahogany, and teak furniture.”

2. “The major US wars of the nineteenth century were the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the War of 1812.”
The presentation of information in this sentence does not justify the order in which the list items are given. If it specifically referred to the relative cost in human lives or in dollars, for example, then the sequence would follow that theme, but in the absence of an obvious context, reference to historical events should be chronological: “The major US wars of the nineteenth century were the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War.”

3. “Among his favorite musical pastimes are drumming in a world music ensemble, yodeling, and playing the harpsichord.”
Again, absent a contextual framework for a list, it’s best to impose order. In this case, the somewhat amorphous descriptions don’t readily admit an alphabetical scheme, so perhaps, for euphony, the items should be arranged from simplest to most complex in terms of syllabication: “Among his favorite musical pastimes are yodeling, playing the harpsichord, and drumming in a world music ensemble.”

4. “It is allowed in some countries, forbidden in a few, and tolerated in others.”
This list describes three degrees of tolerance for a certain policy, so the items should be listed in an ascending or descending order: “It is allowed in some countries, tolerated in others, and forbidden in a few.”

5. “Take a look at the map, and you will see that Scandinavia consists of Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden.”
Without the reference to the map, this sentence could be organized by any one of several schemes, including alphabetical order, geographical location, and relative size. But because speakers of English generally read left to right, and maps are usually oriented to the north, a west-to-east organizational scheme seems most appropriate: “Take a look at the map, and you will see that Scandinavia consists of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.” (OK, Denmark’s westernmost point is slightly to the east of Norway’s, but would you separate the twins Norway and Sweden?)

These contexts are not always mutually exclusive: In a sentence like “The Olympic medals are gold, silver, and bronze,” the scheme could be described as one of interrelationship (gold is more valuable than silver, which is more valuable than bronze) or sequence (gold is for first place, silver for second place, and bronze for third place). But that’s not the point; the idea is to provide some framework — any framework — for a list so as not to distract the reader.

Sometimes, a list’s lineup is determined more by tradition than anything else: “The original Three Stooges consisted of Moe, Larry, and Curly.” Moe was the leader of the group, but there’s no reason to mention Larry before Curly rather than the other way around except that it seems to trip off the tongue more easily that way. Sometimes, that’s as good a reason as any.

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12 Responses to “5 Rules for Using Logic to Order Lists”

  • Charles

    For rule 3, at least in this instance, putting the most complex item at the end could create the possibility of misinterpretation. For example, though not likely, it might be implied that all three activities are occurring “in a world music ensemble”. By ranking them from most complex to least complex, that would not be the case.

  • Cygnifier

    Interesting post, Daniel. Your point that writers ought to think consciously about the order of items in a list is a useful one.

    Another perspective on example 1 might be to leave it with its original order: I love the progression from one syllable to 3 syllables to 4 syllables, especially with the movement from the harsh “k” ending of teak to the bounce of e bo-ny and then the long ma-haa-ga-ny. The sonority of it just seems particularly pleasing.

  • John White

    This has more memorable ramifications than you would imagine. Indeed, the Marx Brothers did well to disregard the order I used whenever introducing them; I always used to mention Gummo first.

  • Mary Hodges

    I’ve always been taught that a comma is not required between the final item on a list and the word “and”. Is this perhaps a UK as opposed to US usage?

  • Kathryn

    Daniel, I am puzzled by your premise. Possibly I am a lazier, sloppier, or less inquisitive reader than most, but I cannot remember ever having been distracted into wondering about the organizational scheme of an in-line list.

    One should consider the order of the items in a list, as one considers the order of all one’s words. But I see no reason to submit oneself, for example, to the tyranny of the alphabet. Alphabetic order assists in searching long lists, but what point does it serve in short ones? I agree with Charles about your third sentence and, like Cygnifier, I would order the woods in your first sentence by length, only I’d move from longest to shortest–the rhythm of “mahogany, ebony and teak” pleases my ear. (Possibly this reveals a personal preference for ending long sequences with a thump–“Merrill, Lynch, Pearce, Fenner and Bean” always made me smile.)

    I absolutely agree about chronological order (and about when not to use it). But in your fourth sentence, I ‘d be more likely to identify those with emphatic positions, pushing the wishy-washily tolerant to the end of the sentence, as you did in first presenting it. And when referring to a map, yes, I’d start at the top left and work my way left-to-right and downward; but if not referring to the map, how I would order the Scandinavian countries would depend on why I was writing about them in the first place.

    Taken as offering some examples of how to think about ordering lists, this post is great–if for no other reason than that it does force us to confront the idea. However, because there are any number of reasons for using lists, I really don’t believe it is possible to dictate a universal ordering scheme for them.

  • Paul

    In your example of Moe, Larry, and Curly, the order you mention is actually correct using your rules of list ordering. Moe was the leader, and the rank between between Larry and Curly were of no significance, however, being a Three Stooges fan in my youth I can tell you that Larry was on the scene before Curly. Using your rules, Larry, being the more senior member of the group, should be listed before Curly.

  • pentamom

    I don’t get #2. Surely the cost of the Mexican War was not greater than that of the Civil War, nor is it possible that the order is ascending and the War of 1812 had the highest cost of all!

    Kathryn, I disagree about the order of this kind of list being insignificant. Justifiably or not, people do tend to assume some kind of significance to the order. Especially in the chronological war example, it might not actually confer wrong information, but it could lead the previously uninformed reader to conclude that the order was chronologically significant — perhaps not fixing the error in his mind, but at least possibly making it harder for him to learn the correct order later. And I confess that an obviously confusing and counter-intuitive ordering can sometimes distract me from the content I’m reading. I tend to assume that writers order lists logically, even if only as a result of conditioning because most people do, and start to wonder why the heck someone would order historical events all over the place like that, unless the context provided some obvious reason for a different pattern.

  • Kathryn

    Pentamom: Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that the order of any kind of list is insignificant; quite the opposite. It’s just that I think choosing the best order for a particular list depends so much on context that it is impossible to state any rules of universal application, although I would agree that chronological order as the default for lists of historical events does make sense. But I didn’t read Daniel’s comment about ordering by relative cost was intended to explain the order as he initially stated it–I read it more as a suggestion about an alternate ordering system which would be appropriate IF the context justified it.

  • Mark Nichol

    The original byline, which will be corrected soon, is wrong — I wrote this post. And, like many of my posts on this site, this one is based on my twenty-five years or so of experience as an editor. During that time, I have found that many writers randomly order run-in lists, which often leaves readers guessing about the organizational scheme — and (therefore) there should always be an organizational scheme.

    My point is that in the absence of a stated scheme, one should be applied — and alphabetical order is the default, because I’m not going to query the writer about such a trivial edit. If the writer has the opportunity to review the edited manuscript before publication, they can override my revisions of lists, identifying their organizational schemes. If not, they can live with the one I assigned — if they noticed the change — and remember to henceforth observe schemes.

  • Kathryn

    Marc: I did wonder why Daniel was revisiting all-of-a-sudden. Thank you for clearing that up.

    I’m still struggling, however. Are you saying that the five rules you offer are what any editor will apply? If so, well. . .why? Is there a stylebook that requires they be applied? If not, then the essential take-away from this thread is that if your writing includes a list, it may be rearranged arbitrarily based on editorial preference. OK, yeah, my understanding of the relationship between writer and editor is that “it may be rearranged based on editorial preference” is a bass theme. All the same–if that is what you intended to communicate in this thread, it could have been more clearly stated. Because if these are rules you used as an editor, what is to assure us that they are rules anyone ELSE will use as an editor?

  • Precise Edit

    Here are two approaches I use when evaluating the order of items in a series or list, both adapted from 300 Days of Better Writing.

    One approach: Clarity

    From the readers’ perspective, series can be confusing. They have to figure out what connects to what and where each item begins and ends. (This is one reason why I recommend putting commas after every item but the last.) Series are most confusing when some of the items are complex. Consider this sentence.

    “The plan called for 25 people, 2 weeks, and the expertise, obviously, of the human resources department.”

    The complex item here is “the expertise, obviously, of the human resources department.” If we write this part as the first or second item in the series, the potential for reader confusion increases. The reader will have to decide where the item begins and ends because of the extra commas.

    Putting this item at the end removes any confusion about where it ends (because nothing follows it), and the sentence is clearer.

    Here’s another example. Let’s say that your series will have the following three items:
    1. “a covered area for fans, such as benches under a canopy”
    2. “good parking”
    3. “clean bathrooms”

    The first item above is the most complex. If we write it as the first or second item in the list, the reader may think the part after the comma is a new item. The reader will figure out that the final phrase in the item is an explanation of the covered area (probably), but this is more work for the reader than necessary, and people reading quickly might misinterpret your words.

    To write in a straightforward and easy-to-understand manner, place that item at the end of the series, resulting in the following sentence.

    “A softball arena should contain good parking, clean bathrooms, and a covered area for fans, such as benches under a canopy.”

    Could we have used semicolons between the items in the series, thus preventing confusion caused by the commas? Sure. I could have written “A softball arena should contain good parking; a covered area for fans, such as benches under a canopy; and clean bathrooms.”

    With the items in this order, the sentence sounds choppy because the order creates two breaks in the flow of ideas, one break after “fans” and another after “canopy.” With the complex item last, the sentence is smoother and feels more complete. By putting that item at the end, therefore, we have increased not only clarity but also elegance.

    Another approach: Impact

    Consider these three ideas. 1) People tend to remember and respond to what they last hear. 2) Series create an expectation, an emotional build-up, that is resolved by the final item. 3) Words at the end of a sentence have more impact than words within a sentence.

    When we combine these three ideas, we find that we can use a series to create impact and emphasize a final point. In short, the final item in the series will have more emotional and mental weight than the preceding items.

    For example, these two sample sentences emphasize different points:

    “We shall spare no cost, overlook no detail, and forget no promise.”
    “We shall forget no promise, overlook no detail, and spare no cost.”

    In the first sentence, “forget no promise” has the most emphasis. In the second, “spare no cost” has the most.

    When considering the order of items in the series, I ask which item is the most important, which item I want to emphasize. Then I put it at the end where it will create the most impact.

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise:

    Good points. And while my post focused on quantitative rationales, you brought up the qualitative impact of concluding a sentence with the most important item in a list.

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