Points About Bullet (and Other) Lists

By Mark Nichol

When constructing vertical lists—sets of words, phrases, or sentences that are formatted vertically below an introductory phrase rather than included within a sentence (the latter is called an in-line list)—take care that the syntactical and grammatical structure of the list is consistent.

In the following list, for example, notice the difference in the syntactical structure of the first two items and the third item; the first two are phrases, and the third is a complete sentence:

When establishing an effective awareness program, senior management should consider the following:

• Reinforcing the message through regular training
• Repetition of themes, ideas, and structure in order to drive cultural change
• The message and its content must be relevant to the audience with whom the company is trying to communicate.

To be consistent, all items in a list should have the same structure (complete sentences or phrases). But note, too, that the grammatical form of the first two items differs: The first word in the first item is a verb, and the first word in the second item is a noun. All three items should be grammatically consistent as well. The following revision addresses both problems:

When establishing an effective awareness program, senior management should consider the following:

• Reinforcement of the message through regular training
• Repetition of themes, ideas, and structure in order to drive cultural change
• Relevance of the message and its content to the audience with whom the company is trying to communicate.

To better illustrate the problems this revision solves, here’s the vertical list formatted as an in-line list: “When establishing an effective awareness program, senior management should consider the following: reinforcing the message through regular training; repetition of themes, ideas, and structure in order to drive cultural change; the message and its content must be relevant to the audience with whom the company is trying to communicate.” Clearly, something is amiss.

In addition to possessing syntactical and grammatical consistency, the text that introduces the list and the list itself should be grammatically integrated. In the original and revised versions above, the introduction is a complete sentence, and thus correctly ends with a colon. In the revision below, note the alternative format for the introduction: It ends abruptly mid-sentence, but each (slightly revised) list item independently finishes the statement. Because of this seamlessness, no colon is required, and the first word of each list item should not be capitalized:

When establishing an effective awareness program, senior management should

• reinforce the message through regular training
• repeat themes, ideas, and structure in order to drive cultural change
• communicate the relevance of the message and its content to the audience with whom the company is trying to communicate.

In each variation, because the vertical list is replicating an in-line list, only the last item is punctuated.

Note that if the list items are all complete sentences, each one should be punctuated, as in the revision below:

When establishing an effective awareness program, senior management should consider the following:

• Senior management should reinforce the message through regular training.
• Senior management should repeat themes, ideas, and structure in order to drive cultural change.
• Senior management should communicate the relevance of the message and its content to the audience with whom the company is trying to communicate.

Note that in illustrating this point, these list items are unnecessarily redundant to the last part of the introduction, as well as repetitive. If all items in a list begin with the same word or phrase (or can easily be revised to do so), incorporate that word or phrase into the introduction and start each list item with the first distinct word in the phrase, as shown in the original revision.

If the items in a list consist of single words or short phrases, no punctuation at all is required after the items, as shown here:

When establishing an effective awareness program, senior management should consider the following factors:

• reinforcement
• repetition
• relevance

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