A Guide to Vertical Lists

By Mark Nichol - 4 minute read

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A recent post described how to organize and format in-line lists, those that occur within a sentence. This one explains the proper use of vertical lists, which are organized by setting the items on the list (following an introductory phrase or sentence), apart from each other, distinguished by numbers, letters, or other symbols, on consecutive lines.

Vertical lists are best employed in place of in-line lists when the list is long and/or the items consist of longer phrases or even complete sentences (or even more than one sentence). However, vertical lists are often useful in contexts in which guidance or instruction is being offered, though they are most effective when they are concise, and extended list items are not advised. If list items consist of more than one sentence, the information might be better displayed as regular text.

The following vertical list (too simple to be formatted as such but used here for illustrative purposes), is offered as a basic example:

The colors of the American flag are

  • red,
  • white, and
  • blue.

(Note: This and other correct lists in this post are formatted in boldface.) Just as is the case with an in-line list, if one or more items in a vertical list itself requires a comma, each item should be set off from the others by a semicolon.

Note that despite the vertical-list formatting, because the introductory phrase and the list constitute a syntactically organized sentence, the introductory phrase is not punctuated, but terminal punctuation follows the final item. (Some publishers, however, simplify this format by omitting especially the conjunction and perhaps the commas as well.)

However, compare the previous example with a version in which the introductory phrase constitutes a complete independent clause:

The colors of the American flag are as follows:

  • red
  • white
  • blue

Here, the introductory phrase and the list do not constitute a sentence, so the list items are not punctuated. Terminal punctuation is included, however, and first word of each list item is capitalized, if the items are themselves self-contained sentences:

Although the colors of the American flag did not have any official meaning when it was designed, the colors on the Great Seal represent the following virtues:

  • White signifies purity and innocence.
  • Red signifies hardiness and valor.
  • Blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

Note how the sentences in the list are organized consistently. In the following examples, the list items must be revised to make the list syntactically consistent:

According to our survey, the top three factors are

  • lax enforcement of budgets and savings being spent in other areas,
  • invalid savings assumptions or changes in the assumptions used to calculate savings, and
  • realized savings are not being effectively tracked.

Note how the first two items follow the syntactical structure of the introductory phrase but the third one is an independent clause. The list can be rendered consistent in two ways:

According to our survey, the top three factors are

  • lax enforcement of budgets and savings being spent in other areas,
  • invalid savings assumptions or changes in the assumptions used to calculate savings, and ineffective tracking of realized savings.

According to our survey, these are the top three factors:

  • Budget enforcement is lax and savings are being spent in other areas.
  • Savings assumptions are invalid or there are changes in the assumptions used to calculate savings.
  • Realized savings are not being effectively tracked.

Avoid producing vertical lists in which to or more list items begin with the same word or words, as in this example:

In this session, you will learn

  • how to get business processes and systems to scale to business growth,
  • how to build out a financial team to drive and support growth,
  • how to build these important pillars within an audit/business controls mind-set, and
  • securing/managing financing to support corporate growth strategy.

To revise, incorporate the recurring word or phrase into the introductory phrase and revise any list items that begin with different wording so that they conform with the others, as shown here:

In this session, you will learn how to

  • get business processes and systems to scale to business growth,
  • build out a financial team to drive and support growth,
  • build these important pillars within an audit/business controls mind-set, and
  • secure/manage financing to support corporate growth strategy.

Note, too, that any symbol may be used in place of bullets, but the same symbol should be employed throughout not only a single vertical list but also all such lists throughout a document or publication. If one or more items in a vertical list marked by bullets are followed by subsidiary items of their own, a distinct symbol (such as a hollow bullet) should be used for those items, which should also be indented farther than the primary list items.

Sometimes, no symbols are used at all, but this strategy is best employed if the items are brief and numerous, such as in a vocabulary list consisting of one- or two-word items. (In addition, a vertical list in which items are short can be formatted into two or more narrow columns if the width of the printed or online page is wide enough to accommodate them.)

Also, numbers and letters may be substituted for bullets, but numbers are recommended only when the items in the list should be read in a particular order, such as when outlining a procedure or ranking the list items. Letters are appropriate primarily for multiple-choice test items, for example, or when the text includes frequent cross-references such as “See item d.”

A basic outline-style vertical list can be organized using a simple hierarchy of Arabic numerals and lowercase letters. For a complex outline, the recommended hierarchy of numbers and letters varies according to various style manuals and writing handbooks, but The Chicago Manual of Style advises the following sequence: Roman numerals (I, II, III, and so on), capital letters (A, B, C, and so on), Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, and so on), lowercase letters (a, b, c, and so on) followed by a close parenthesis, Arabic numerals enclosed in parentheses, lowercase letters enclosed in parentheses, and lowercase Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, and so on) followed by a close parenthesis.

Another outline format is the decimal outline, as shown below (appropriate indentation not used here):
1.
1.1
1.1.1
1.1.2
1.1.3
1.2
1.2.1 . . .
1.3
1.3.1 . . .
2.
2.1 . . .

Ultimately, the goal of any list organization is clarity.

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