By Casey Mank
At Bold Type, we love lists. We recommend them to our clients all the time because they are one of the few real “easy fixes” that exist in writing—a dramatic way to instantly cut down on verbiage and make information look organized, approachable, and reader-friendly. They foreground verbs, inspire concrete outcomes, and categorize information so it’s easier to remember and act on.
But we also get a lot of questions about bulleted lists. If you think about it, there’s a lot that can go wrong with them. When you’re bulleting, is every word capitalized, like in a title? Should you use full sentences? Should you use periods even if you decided not to use full sentences? Are semicolons classier? Should you put “and” before the last item? How long can each bullet be?
Actually, as with most formatting choices, there’s no One Ring Rule To Rule Them All.
Here’s the AP entry: AP uses dashes instead of bullets to introduce individual sections of a list. Capitalize the first word following the dash. Use periods, not semicolons, at the end of each section, whether it is a full sentence or a phrase.
And here’s the Chicago Manual of Style: Unless the items themselves form complete sentences, lowercase the first letter of each item in a multiple-choice list and omit periods.
Meanwhile, APA says: When using a bulleted list to separate three or more elements within a sentence, capitalize and punctuate the list as if it were a complete sentence.
If the rulebooks can’t agree on the rules, what’s a writer to do?
I want to suggest a single guiding principle: consistency.
When you write a list, your job is to make it easy and fast for someone to use. Can the user of this list scan it? Can they get all the info they need in the first 10 seconds? Can they read the first 3 words of each item and then guess the rest? Can they skip straight to specific content that requires their attention or action?
Following the single rule of consistency will ensure that your list performs its two essential functions: providing readers with a mental “bucket” to store information, and presenting content that is easy to scan rather than read.
To keep your lists consistent, start with these easy guidelines:
Start every bullet the same. If it’s a list of actions, start each bullet with a verb. If it’s a list of items, stick to items and don’t throw a verb in there. Capitalize sentence fragments or don’t—your choice! But don’t mix uppercase and lowercase beginnings.
End every bullet the same. Punctuate or don’t. But don’t punctuate some items and not others! It makes sense to use periods if you’re writing full sentences, but lots of people leave them off when writing informally or writing for screens. Either way, make your choice and stick to it.
Don’t mix your lists. Create one list at a time. Is this an action list? An item list? An “additional notes” list? Your readers would rather get three separate, well-labeled lists than have everything in one list and do the sorting work themselves
Here are a few examples.
Ahead of the next meeting, the following will be completed:
The client will provide a space for the November 1 meeting.
The client will deliver the existing literature to the team by COB on October 10.
The team will send the client an agenda before COB on October 31.
Ahead of the next meeting, the client will:
Provide space for November 1 meeting
Deliver existing literature to team by COB October 10
Receive agenda from team before COB October 31
Both of the above bulleted lists are right—even though they’re very different. What’s wrong is something like this:
Ahead of the next meeting:
Provide a Space for the November 1 Meeting
client will deliver the existing literature to the team by COB on October 10.
who can send an agenda before COB on 31st?
The final example looks like you didn’t think it through. Because it mixes formatting cues and categories of information, it’s much harder for your reader to process. Remember, lists exist to make things faster and easier for the reader. Help them out by making your lists clear and consistent. They’ll thank you for it.