Bulleted Lists

By Maeve Maddox

More than one reader has asked me to write about bulleted lists.

The term takes its name from a typographical symbol called a bullet, a round dot used to mark or emphasize a paragraph or an item in a vertical list.

Nowadays, typographical bullets are not limited to dots, but can be any geometric shape. They can even be little pictures or company logos.

The English word bullet comes from French boulette, a diminutive of boule, “ball.” Until the 19th century, bullets were round.

Bulleted lists are used to make items stand out from the text without implying order of importance. They may include punctuation marks like commas and semicolons, but for most blogging applications, it’s a good idea to keep punctuation to a minimum. Here are three models that will serve for most purposes.

1. Headline followed by items

This format is suitable for a list of one or two-word items under a headline:

What Not To Take On A Plane
• Sharp Objects
• Sporting Goods
• Firearms
• Tools

When the items are expressed in just one or two words, it’s usual to capitalize them.

2. Introductory sentence introducing phrases

This format is suitable for a list in the context of an article. The introductory statement is followed by a colon:

In order to register, you must bring the following documents:

• an official copy of your birth certificate
• a recent photo ID
• a recent utility bill addressed to you or to a member of your family

Items do not have capitals if they are fragments.

3. Introductory sentence introducing complete sentences

Passengers will avoid losing luggage if they follow these guidelines:
• Put contact information inside as well as outside your bag.
• Put a distinguishing mark on your bag to make it easy to identify.
• Keep valuable items with you.
• Keep the stub of your checked baggage with you.

Items that are complete sentences are capitalized and have end punctuation.

If possible, keep each item to one line and observe parallel construction. If your item extends to a second line, start the second line under the first word that follows the bullet for that item.

For other formatting that includes commas and semicolons, see The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), sections 6.124 and 6.125.

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2 Responses to “Bulleted Lists”

  • Zainab

    Hi, thanks a lot for this post. Bulleted lists always troubled me and this made it all clear. There is one request though and that is about listing items in a paragraph. What is the proper way of doing so?
    For instance, consider the following,
    …This solution is not going to work cause a) we don’t have enough time and resources, b) it is impractical and c) patience is not boss’s strong virtue.
    Is this the proper way of listing the options?

  • Maeve

    Zainab,
    I just noticed your comment. My response is only a year late. (!)
    Here’s how I would do it:
    “This solution is not going to work because a. we don’t have enough time and resources, b. it is impractical, and c. patience is not boss’s strong virtue.”
    Note: Using “cause” in place of “because” is not Standard English.

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