3 Problems with In-Line Lists

By Mark Nichol

An in-line list, one located within a sentence rather than formatted vertically below an explanatory phrase, sentence, or paragraph, may present an obstacle to comprehension in the following ways. Each sentence represents a different type of error, and the discussion that follows each statement explains the problem and a revision resolves it.

1. Organizations must notify affected individuals of a data breach when a reasonable person would conclude that the unauthorized access to, disclosure or loss of the information would be likely to result in serious harm to the individual or individuals. 

In this sentence, there should be three distinct phrases consisting of a noun followed by a preposition, but disclosure is bereft of the latter; either allow it to share one, or give it its own: “Organizations must notify affected individuals of a data breach when a reasonable person would conclude that the unauthorized access to or disclosure or loss of the information would be likely to result in serious harm to the individual or individuals” or “Organizations must notify affected individuals of a data breach when a reasonable person would conclude that the unauthorized access to, disclosure of, or loss of the information would be likely to result in serious harm to the individual or individuals.” 

2. Typically, the best companies: are customer-focused; understand their value proposition; develop powerful and distinctive messaging; and listen well and act to improve their processes, products, and customer experience continuously.

No colon or other punctuation mark is necessarily to signal that an in-line list follows the subject of the sentence; it is redundant to the verb(s) it precedes: “Typically, the best companies are customer-focused; understand their value proposition; develop powerful and distinctive messaging; and listen well and act to improve their processes, products, and customer experience continuously.”

This is true as well for vertical lists, unless the introductory wording constitutes an independent clause—compare “Typically, the best companies [vertical list follows]” and “Typically, the best companies demonstrate the following qualities: [vertical list follows].” Note, too, that with the latter format, the list items would have to be revised to be complete sentences or to not begin with a verb.

3. Its long list of supporters includes Kobe Bryant, swimmer Janet Evans, Venus and Serena Williams and other sports royalty.

When the style a publication adheres to calls for omitting the serial comma in simple lists (“a, b and c”), the serial comma must still be employed on occasion to clarify organization when a compound list item occurs: “Its long list of supporters includes Kobe Bryant, swimmer Janet Evans, Venus and Serena Williams, and other sports royalty.” (This rule applies for list forms “a and b, c, and d,” “a, b and c, and d,” or “a, b, and c and d,” as well as “a and b, c and d, and e” and so on.)

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