7 Rules For Formatting Lists

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Conventions for formatting lists are simple and straightforward, but many writers (and their editors) seem not to have gotten the memo. Here’s an outline about how to outline:

1. Numbered and Unnumbered

Two basic categories for lists exist: numbered and unnumbered. Many numbered lists that people use online and in print have no need for numbers, because numeration implies a prioritized sequence, such as one of chronology. Number your lists only if there’s a rationale for ordering the items exactly as they’re listed.

2. The Bullets

The items in unnumbered lists are often preceded by dots or other symbols known collectively as bullets, though such markers are technically not necessary, especially in a recipe or a materials list. (In those cases, it’s implicit that the ingredients or components are added or constructed in the order listed — it’s actually a numbered list that needs no numbers.)

3. The Introductory Sentence

When you set a numbered or unnumbered list up with an introductory sentence, it can be a complete sentence or an incomplete one, depending on how the list items are constructed. But follow it with a colon only if it’s a complete sentence. For example, you can write “To ensure success, consider these tips:” Alternatively, you can write, “To, ensure success, make certain that you” — but only if each item in the list can independently complete a sentence starting with that setup.

4. The Single Items

If the setup is a complete sentence, each list item can be a single word, a phrase, or a complete sentence, but it’s best if you’re consistent within a list. In this case, capitalize, and use a period, only in complete sentences. (And don’t deviate in how you form words, such as whether verbs appear in their root form or with -ed or -ing endings, for example.)

5. Punctuation

If the setup is incomplete, only phrases that complete the setup are appropriate, and each one should end with a period. Don’t use commas or semicolons, and don’t append and to the second-to-last item.

6. List or Not?

Before formatting a list, make sure it’s best displayed as such. A group of just a few items might better be run in, meaning simply included in a sentence. (Commas are sufficient to set off the items in a simple list; use semicolons only if list items themselves contain commas.)

Conversely, lists consisting of items more than one sentence long are cumbersome, and these elements are usually more effectively presented within paragraphs or as separate paragraphs. In the latter case, they can be numbered, if necessary, or perhaps equipped with a heading for each item, if the items are more than a couple of sentences long.

7. Separators

Also, in run-in lists, avoid separators like “1)” or “(a)” unless the wording or the punctuation fail to distinguish the items; even then, consider whether revision or reorganization can improve the clarity of the list.

For simple outlines that have a couple of levels, use, in turn, roman numerals and lowercase letters. When constructing complex outlines, however, follow this standard sequence to identify items in each level:

roman numeral
uppercase letter
arabic numeral
lowercase letter
arabic number followed by parenthesis or within parentheses
lowercase letter followed by parenthesis or within parentheses

Formatting lists correctly supports your efforts to communicate them clearly.

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10 thoughts on “7 Rules For Formatting Lists”

  1. I’ve recently subscribed to your blog and enjoy reading it. Thank you for the good tips. I take it that this post an example of “Do as I say, not as I do.” (See list item #1.)

  2. Thanks for the tips for formatting list. I’d prefered to find some examples going with every tip, so I could better imagine how the list might look when keeping to the tip.

    Regards, Elke

  3. Sometimes you can’t get away from using bullets and numbers if your clients want them. I had a client that expected listed items to be in bullets. Did I think it was necessary? No, I did not. My client was paying me, and I did what they asked me to do.

  4. Thanks, Mark. It’s always useful to be reminded of possible strategies for lists. It is perhaps a bit strong to suggest that writers and editors who do not follow these specific conventions have not “gotten the memo” or to imply that these suggestions are the only options (or “rules) to “correctly support” efforts to communicate clearly. A quick look through APA, MLA, and Chicago suggests that there are other correct ways to approach lists. For example, APA indicates that numbered lists need not necessarily imply a prioritized sequence, that lists must form complete sentences (or be constituted of complete sentences), and that separators with parentheses are just fine for run-in lists. Many house styles will vary somewhat as well, so perhaps it is worthwhile to present these conventions as one option rather than THE rule.

  5. Jeremy:

    Thanks for joining the gang! And good catch about the numbers. For a response, I refer you to Rebecca’s comment, which is apt in this case. This site’s publisher wanted the items numbered, so they’re numbered. (List items without priority are often numbered anyway just to provide a framework.)

  6. Cygnifier:

    Yes, many style manuals exist, they can diverge widely in their suggestions or strictures, and they’re all intrinsically correct. But my guidelines, which I admit are often more prescriptive than descriptive (“Do this,” as opposed to “This is how it’s done”), are based on the philosophical principle of Occam’s Razor, which for nonphilosophical purposes can be expressed, appropriately, with one word: simplify.

    By all means, writers should explore the resources you’ve mentioned, and others, to educate themselves about customs in composition, but they should also understand that if they are to succeed in a specific realm of the publishing world, they will necessarily adhere to one manual. (I have lived and breathed The Chicago Manual of Style throughout my career, so I favor it; its guidelines for formatting lists are the basis of this post.) That said, publishers do deviate from the rulebooks (see Rebecca’s comment), so flexibility is essential.

  7. Roger:

    You’ll find, if you use the numbering or bulleting tool in Microsoft Word, that it indents text, but publications diverge on the indent-or-not-indent question. A list with sublists, such as the traditional I./A./1./a. outline, is rendered more readable if items at each level are indented more or less deeply depending on the level.

  8. Thank you for this post, Mark. I am happy to say that as a result of this article, I won an argument in the correct order a complex outline should be illustrated, I/A/1/a. I love it when I’m right; I’m a sore loser.

  9. Becky:

    Please don’t take this as a contradiction (*ducks head*), but don’t take my word for it. Myriad writing and editing guidebooks (such as my beloved Chicago Manual of Style will bear me out.

    I have never had a chance to find out whether I’m a sore loser, because I’m always right. 🙂

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