3 Examples of Restructuring In-Line Lists

By Mark Nichol

“In-line list” is simply a fancy term for a list of things in a sentence that aren’t treated as a vertical list—that is, a list formatted so that each item is positioned below the previous one (often with a number, letter, bullet, or other symbol to set the items off visually from each other and sometimes represent a hierarchy or sequence). As with vertical lists, careless organization of list items in in-line lists results in syntactically flawed sentences such as those shown below.

However, as opposed to vertical lists, which often err in grammatical inconsistency of the items, in-line lists are often marred by a poor organization of list items (and items in lists within lists) and incorrect use of transitional elements such as conjunctions and punctuation marks. A discussion and a revision after each example explains the error and illustrates a solution.

1. The category includes those with low incomes, poor credit history, inadequate documentation, or those living with a disability, illness, or those with a criminal record.

This sentence unhelpfully makes no distinction between three categories of list items: financial, medical, and legal complications. The revision reorganizes the unstructured collection of six items into these categories: “The category includes those with low incomes, poor credit history, or inadequate documentation, those living with a disability or illness, or those with a criminal record.” (Because one category itself constitutes a list of three items, some writers may prefer to mark the three larger divisions with semicolons rather than commas, but because of the repetitive phrasing beginning with those, the more potent punctuation is not necessary.)

2. They build large capital reserves, have great relationships with their lenders, and trusting relationships with their customers, vendors, and shareholders.

Here, five elements are syntactically structured as a list, but the third item (which itself refers to three things) lacks a verb, so the sentence structure is flawed: “They build large capital reserves, have great relationships with their lenders, and have trusting relationships with their customers, vendors, and shareholders.” (Similar to the previous example, because the distinct items are clearly indicated by parallel use of verbs, no hand-holding replacement of commas with semicolons is necessary in this case.)

Another option is to revise this sentence using conjunctions in place of some punctuation marks: “They build large capital reserves and have great relationships with their lenders and trusting relationships with their customers, vendors, and shareholders.”

3. Do we have a great team, a strong road map, and the required processes, systems and alliances, and sufficient resources to sustain our journey? 
 
In this case, the sentence is almost correct, but qualifying resources with sufficient renders it a syntactical orphan. The simplest solution is to omit the adjective and allow resources to share required with the items that precede it: “Do we have a great team and a strong road map, as well as the required processes, systems and alliances, and resources to sustain our journey?” 

If you feel that resources does not belong with the other items as shown in the revision above, consider this solution: “Do we have a great team and a strong road map—as well as the required processes, systems and alliances—and resources to sustain our journey?”


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