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Handling Vertical Lists

Hardly a week goes by that we are not asked a question about vertical lists (often referred to as bulleted lists):

  • When are bullets more appropriate than numbers or letters in a vertical list?

  • What do we mean when we say that the items in a list must be parallel?

  • How should we punctuate and capitalize the items in vertical lists?

  • Should vertical lists always be introduced with a colon?

While all style guides agree that parallel structure is essential in vertical lists, they differ to some degree in their advice about punctuation and capitalization of the items. We have assumed here that our readers are interested in knowing how to capitalize and punctuate vertical lists that appear in reports, business letters, and other texts written in complete sentences and organized into paragraphs. Writers of lists that appear in other kinds of texts-posters, brochures, billboards, and menus, for example-may take liberties with punctuation and capitalization in order to enhance the visual appeal of their messages.

A. Choosing Bullets, Numbers, or Letters

In general, use bullets for a vertical list that is not ordered—that is, a list whose items do not need to be in a particular order to designate a hierarchy, a sequence, or steps in a process. Numbers suggest a hierarchy or a prescribed order.

To a lesser degree than numbers, letters of the alphabet also suggest a hierarchy. However, even when no particular order is necessary, if we need to refer to individual items elsewhere in a document (e.g., "see item c"), it is better to use letters instead of bullets or numbers.

B. Maintaining Parallel Construction

Perhaps the most important factor affecting the meaning and coherence of a list within a sentence is parallel construction: all of the items in the list need to have the same logical and grammatical structure. That is to say, the items in the list need to be

  • all single words of the same part of speech (e.g., all nouns, all adjectives, all verbals),
  • all phrases of the same structure (e.g., all verbal phrases, all noun phrases, all prepositional phrases),
  • all subordinate clauses, or
  • all main clauses (i.e., full sentences).

C. Punctuating and Capitalizing the Items in a List

Except when the items in a list are complete sentences (or when they contain complete sentences), treat a list as a single long sentence. Whether the list is vertical or contained within the running text of a sentence, the following guidelines apply:

  1. Provide a relevant and clearly expressed lead-in clause or phrase. Remember that each of the items in the list must complete a meaningful, grammatically correct statement when read with that lead-in.
  2. Begin the first word in each item with a lowercased letter.
  3. Use appropriate punctuation after each item to separate them from one another in the series.
  4. Use "and" (or, depending upon the logic of the list, "or") after the next-to-last item.
  5. Use a period after the last item in the list.

How we punctuate and capitalize the items in a list depends upon whether they are individual words, phrases, or clauses and whether any of the items contain complete sentences:

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  • If the items in the list are single words or phrases with no internal punctuation, put a comma at the end of each item. Put "and" (or, if logic dictates, "or") after the next-to-last item in the list and a period after the last item. The items are not capitalized (except for proper nouns). See examples 1a, 1b, 1d, 2a, and 2f below.

  • If the items in the list are phrases or clauses with punctuation in them, put a semicolon at the end of each item. Put "and" (or, if logic dictates, "or") after the next-to-last item in the list and a period after the last item. The items are not capitalized (except for proper nouns). See example 2b below.

  • If the items in the list are complete sentences, put a period or a question mark at the end of each of them-and capitalize the first word-just as you would do with any sentence. Do not use "and" or "or" after the next-to-last item. See examples 1c and 2c below and our list of five guidelines under "C" above.

  • If even one of the items in the list contains a complete sentence, put a period at the end of every item in the list-and capitalize the first word-just as you would do if they were all complete sentences. Neither "and" nor "or" is used after the next-to-last item. See examples 2d and 2e below.

D. Introducing a List

A vertical list should be introduced with either a colon or no punctuation at all, depending upon the structure of the lead-in:

1. A List Introduced with a Colon

A main clause (i.e., a group of words capable of standing alone as a sentence) must precede a colon in a sentence, no matter what follows that colon. In other words, use a colon to introduce a vertical list only if you could logically use a period at that place in a regular sentence.

EXAMPLE 1a

Most companies evaluate their professional development programs by a number of methods:

  • evaluation sheets and comments by participants following each program,
  • input from employees and administrators, and
  • direct observation.

EXAMPLE 1b

Agencies have promoted professional development through a variety of strategies:

  • financial support to staff seeking professional advancement,
  • training at various times to meet the needs of staff,
  • opportunities for staff to attend conferences and workshops, and
  • teleconferences on a variety of topics.

EXAMPLE 1c

Employees who do not pass their certification exams will be retested:

  • Candidates who have attained a total combined score below 550 on prior administrations must retake the full battery of five tests.
  • Candidates who have attained a total combined score of 550 or higher on prior administrations may be permitted a partial administration of one or more tests.
  • No more than three testing sessions (either initial or retesting sessions) may be scheduled for a candidate in one calendar year.

EXAMPLE 1d

The paper contained a number of errors in English grammar, mechanics, and usage:

  • fused sentences,
  • incomplete comparisons,
  • comma splices,
  • faulty parallelism, and
  • dangling modifiers.

2. A List Introduced with No Punctuation

Introduce a list with no punctuation at all when the part of the sentence preceding the list is an incomplete construction (i.e., not a main clause). In other words, use no punctuation at all if you would never use a period at that place in a regular sentence.

EXAMPLE 2a

During this meeting the members addressed such topic areas as

  • the name of the program,
  • questions about the purpose of the program, and
  • goals for the next five years.

EXAMPLE 2b

Important developments have occurred in recent years in foreign language classrooms, where now we find

  • more opportunities for students to speak and to initiate conversation in the language they are studying;
  • more emphasis on effective communication and less on error-correction;
  • the use of interweaving, spiraling, and recycling to reinforce what is taught and to meet the needs of students with different learning styles; and
  • the use of an interdisciplinary approach in which foreign language instruction connects with instruction in other subject areas.

(Notice that semicolons are appropriate at the end of each item in this list only because of the commas in the next-to-last item in the list ["interweaving, spiraling, and recycling"]. If no item in the list contains internal commas, each item should be followed by a comma instead of a semicolon.)

EXAMPLE 2c

In government and political science, learners are given opportunities to answer questions such as

  • What is civic life?
  • What is government?
  • What are the foundations of the American political system?
  • What are the basic values and principles of American democracy?
  • What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?

EXAMPLE 2d

The business assistance model will include a variety of strategies such as

  • Partnering low-performing businesses with exemplary sites to establish a mentoring relationship with continuous assistance.
  • Providing successful CEOs as consultants to design specific improvement plans.
  • Providing numerous resources to businesses to assist with program improvement efforts. Software, equipment, and consulting services may be supplied by the state or by industry partnerships.

    (Notice that because this last item in the list contains a complete sentence, all of the items in the list should start with capital letters and end with periods [or other terminal punctuation].)

EXAMPLE 2e

The auditor's reports must state that the audit was conducted in accordance with company guidelines and must include

  1. An opinion (or disclaimer of opinion) as to whether the financial statements are presented fairly in all material respects in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles. [Notice that this item in the list is not a complete sentence, nor does it contain a complete sentence, as the following two items do. However, if even one of the items in the list contains a complete sentence, each item should start with a capital letter and end with a period (or other terminal punctuation).]

  2. A report on internal controls related to the financial statements and major programs. This report will describe the scope of testing of internal controls and the results of the tests.

  3. A report on compliance with laws, regulations, and the provisions of contracts or grant agreements, noncompliance with which could have a material effect on the financial statements. This report will also include an opinion (or disclaimer of opinion) as to whether the auditee complied with laws, regulations, and the provisions of contracts or grant agreements that could have a direct and material effect on each major program.

EXAMPLE 2f

Sources of funding to state agencies for services to people with disabilities are

  • grant funds,
  • earmarked funds,
  • federal funds, and
  • general funds.

Many writers would be tempted to put a colon after the lead-in for lists 2a through 2f above. In fact, the vertical list is just one context in which the colon is frequently misused. To read our newsletter article on using the colon, first published in 2002, go to http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/111602.htm.

Copyright 2006 Get It Write