How to Revise Bullet Lists for Grammatical Consistency

By Mark Nichol

Bullet lists — distinguished from numbered lists in that they do not imply a priority or chronology in the order in which the list items appear — are useful for when a list becomes too unwieldy to be formatted in line (within a sentence), but just as in a sentence’s in-line list, the bullet list’s grammatical structure should be coherent.

Here are three bullet lists I obtained from a job listing (a format that frequently exhibits grammatical infelicities and thus amuses job-seeking wordsmiths attuned to irony), each followed by a syntactically sound revision:

1. Original
“This position is responsible for:
• Writing and/or editing in all media
• Assures quality for engaging audience
• Coordinates flow of information to achieve news cycle deadlines
• Creative Designer
• Contributes to high-performing teamwork
• Continuously seeks and applies learning to enhance skills and performances”

1. Revision
“This position is responsible for
• writing and/or editing in all media
• assuring quality for engaging the audience
• coordinating flow of information to achieve news-cycle deadlines
• creatively designing presentation of content
• contributing to high-performing teamwork
• continuously seeking and applying learning to enhance skills and performances”

Note that the colon in the introductory phrase has been omitted because the bullet-list items consecutively complete that phrase; it’s incorrect — whether in line or in a bullet list — to write, “This position is responsible for: writing and/or editing in all media . . . .” (It is acceptable to follow each bullet list item with a comma, with the conjunction and following the next-to-last comma, and include a period after the last item, which more accurately replicates an in-line list’s structure, but these additions are superfluous.) Most important, however, the verb(s) in each item now take an identical inflectional ending (-ing).

The list could also, by revision of the introductory phrase, allow a simple verb form (-s), requiring alteration only of the verb form of the first item and an extension of “Creative Designer” into a complete thought:

“The content manager
• writes and/or edits in all media”
(etc.)

2. Original
“Job Requirements:
• Applicants should have at least three years of daily newspaper copy editing and design experience.
• Exceptional Writing Proficiency
• Strong Proofreading and editing skills
• Experience in page design and layout on pagination systems like Quark or InDesign.
• Must understand that journalists are held to a higher standard and must follow strict ethical rules, such as not accepting gifts from sources; not putting political bumper stickers on their cars; etc. — all outlined in The New York Times Co.’s ethical policies.
• Knowledge of best practices in page design, typography, use of space and photography.

2. Revision
“Applicants must have
• at least three years of daily newspaper copyediting and design experience,
• exceptional writing proficiency,
• strong proofreading and editing skills,
• experience in page design and layout on pagination systems like Quark or InDesign, and
• knowledge of best practices in page design, typography, use of space, and photography.

Applicants must also understand that journalists are held to a higher standard and must follow strict ethical rules such as not accepting gifts from sources and not putting political bumper stickers on their cars — all outlined in The New York Times Co.’s ethical policies.”

The original introductory phrase is correctly punctuated because it is a fragment that sets up but is not syntactically continuous with each of the items that follow it. However, the items are inconsistent as to whether they are phrases or complete sentences and in terminal punctuation.

In my revision, I created a new introductory phrase that can apply to all bullet list items (except the one about ethical rules, which I broke out as a separate paragraph because of its length and nonparallel structure — and note the revision of its own in-line list), and I lowercased several words that were gratuitously capitalized.

This scheme now matches that of the first bullet list — with one exception: Here, for illustration, I have included optional internal punctuation in the bullet list, which I discussed but recommended against in my annotation of the previous example.

3. Original
We are looking for candidates that have the following qualities:
• Quality Orientation
• Strong Work Standards
• Exceptional Communication Skills
• Ability to manage work
• Contributing to team success
• Proven decision making skills
• Building strategic working relationships
• Active Learning

3. Revision
“We are looking for candidates that have the following qualities:
• quality orientation
• strong work standards
• exceptional communication skills
• ability to manage work
• desire to contribute to team success
• proven decision-making skills
• aptitude for building strategic working relationships
• active learning”

This list was easier to fix: The introductory phrase, which comes to a halt, is correctly punctuated, and the items were mostly consistent in their phrase form. (Inconsistency in grammatical form between one list and another in a piece of content is acceptable, but lists should be internally consistent.) I simply removed unnecessary capitalization and rephrased two of the items to describe qualities rather than actions.

For more tips about bullet lists, check out this post, and search the site for “lists” and “bullet lists” to find others.

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7 Responses to “How to Revise Bullet Lists for Grammatical Consistency”

  • R.L. Bynum

    It should be “candidates who” instead of “candidates that.”

  • Constance

    Examples #1 and #3 exhibit misfires, even before the bullets. In #1, it is not the position that is responsible, but the person who would hold the position. The third example states, “We are looking for candidates that have the following qualities:”. Assuming that the candidates they are looking for are human beings, “that” should be replaced by “who”, or a simple “with” or “possessing” would suffice. This dehumanization by, presumably, Human Relations departments only adds to the pile of irony.

  • Julie Link

    In the first revision, could each bulleted item end with a semi-colon (the penultimate item including the word “and” after the semicolon), and the final item end with a period? This is how I’ve been formatting lists for the company for which I work.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    As regards example 1, I’ve never heard of adding periods at the end of each item when the items are phrases not sentences. It goes against all bulleting guidance that I’ve seen, e.g. that in the Oxford Guide to Plain English. I can’t see the justification or logic for it, and to me it looks fussy.

    I like the idea of omitting the colon from the platform statement in that context, though.

    Bulleted lists in texts for the internet are best with minimal ending punctuation (usually none, preferably not semicolons), as that makes the list look cleaner and easier on the eye, given how people read on the net.

  • Mark Nichol

    Julie:

    Yes, I should have mentioned that the format you describe is also correct (but unnecessary).

  • Mark Nichol

    Oliver:

    Thanks for pointing out that point; the post has been revised to correct references to bullet list punctuation.

  • Alan

    In a bullet list we omit a period after each phrase. You point out that a comma can be included after each phrase and a period at the end of the bullet list.

    Working with readers with impaired vision it is helpful to include a punctuation mark – a comma, or preferably a period, This causes screen readers, or ‘reading out loud’ prgrammes to give a slight pause in the reading to clearly separate bullet phrases.

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