3 Cases of Inconsistent Wording in Lists

By Mark Nichol

Whether items are listed in line (within a sentence) or vertically, the syntactical structure of the items should be consistent. In the following three examples, discussion and revision illustrate this point.

First Example

1. Integrity to the Discipline
2. Constructive Board Engagement
3. Effective Risk Positioning
4. Establish a Learning Culture
5. Set Appropriate Incentives

In this list of topics, the first three are written as phrases, while the last two are imperative sentences (meaning that they tell the reader to do something). Every item should follow the same organization, one way or the other:

Option 1: Phrases
1. Integrity to the Discipline
2. Constructive Board Engagement
3. Effective Risk Positioning
4. Establishment of a Learning Culture
5. Setting of Appropriate Incentives

Option 2: Imperative Sentences
1. Bring Integrity to the Discipline
2. Enable Constructive Board Engagement
3. Promote Effective Risk Positioning
4. Establish a Learning Culture
5. Set Appropriate Incentives

Second Example

1. Appearances are everything.
2. Tell the story.
3. Keep it short.
4. Speak with authority.
5. Respond directly to questions.
6. Be a team player.

In this set of statements, all items are complete sentences, but the first one is a declarative statement (one that states a fact or idea). The easiest solution here is to alter the outlier (though in certain cases it may be more appropriate, or otherwise preferable, to retain the syntactical structure of the minority item(s) in a list):

1. Remember that appearances are everything.
2. Tell the story.
3. Keep it short.
4. Speak with authority.
5. Respond directly to questions.
6. Be a team player.

Third Example

Management complexity is significantly reduced.
Tool sprawl eliminated.
Scalable, resilient infrastructure.

Each of the three items in this list is different; the first is a declarative statement, the second is also declarative but, as is sometimes done in lists, it has (unlike the previous item) been truncated by omission of a helping verb, and the third item is simply a phrase. Again, unless there is a good reason for structuring list items to match the exception or exceptions, go with the majority:

Management complexity is significantly reduced.
Tool sprawl is eliminated.
Infrastructure is scalable and resilient.

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