Lists and their wily ways

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Beth Battrick
Writer and editor @ Teaspoon Consulting

As I mentioned in my article on Pacing and Spacing, vertical lists are a good way long, detailed sentences into smaller, easily-digested morsels for your hungry reader. They're useful for overviews—for the whole piece or just for one area—and for showing an argument's progression or structure. Lists with line breaks in between each item, which is what I'm discussing here, are called vertical lists to distinguish them from in-text or horizontal lists. (Although in general speech, you can just say list and everyone will catch your meaning.)

As with any tool of writing, lists are useful in balance: too may lists will limit your ability to go into any significant detail and leave your reader feeling like they're reading over your presentation notes rather than your actual text. Proceed with wisdom.

Why use lists?

Lists are great when:

Lists are also great if you've got a few punchy points you want to make quick and obvious to the reader:

Lists are almost essential for procedural documentation, such as user guides, knitting patterns, or office process documentation—anywhere the reader's understanding is lifted by a detailed explanation of steps, in order.

List types

Let's make this easy: there are ordered and unordered lists. That's the main distinguishing factor between kinds of vertical lists. Unordered means a list with bullet points, ordered means a list with numbers or letters. Whether you choose one or the other should hinge on whether or not the order of the elements is essential, or at least useful, to understanding. For example, in a recipe the ingredients are usually listed in an unordered list, while the steps are usually in an ordered list. While the order you combine the ingredients is usually critical, the order in which you read the list of things you'll need is not.

Ordered lists

While individual style guides may vary on the matter, my recommendation is to use unordered lists unless you have a good reason to use an ordered lists. Good reasons like:

Why? Because using an ordered list is giving more information to a reader: they have to absorb the text of the items, and the order of that text. If the order of the text isn't important, why load up your reader with that extra information?

An ordered list uses numbers or letters to indicate the sequence in which the items should be read/digested. Include a full stop after the item number to separate it from the text, or enclose the number in parentheses. You can use Arabic or Roman numerals, or upper- or lower-case letters, but be consistent throughout your text.

Unordered lists

An unordered list is pretty simple: bullet points at the start of each line—or dashes, or asterisks, or little penguins, or whatever passes for a bullet in the given context. Again: be consistent throughout your text.

On the tricky question of punctuation

Some style guides have guidelines about how to format lists, including how to punctuate each item and the list's introductory phrase. If you're preparing for a publication which upholds a style guide, then apply the rules that style guide uses.

If you're working without a style guide, here are some punctuation configurations for consideration.

The preceding clause

The text that precedes a list, and is often included in it, is its preceding clause. A list can be a continuation of a clause or it can stand alone. For example:

The naming of cats:

In this example, the preceding clause and both list items are essentially one long sentence. In this case, end the preceding clause with a colon, an ellipsis (rarely used, but can be effective) or leave it unpunctuated. Make sure you add terminal punctuation to the last list item. Here's another example:

This paper will be discussing the naming of cats.

In this example, the preceding clause and the list items all stand alone. Use a full stop (or any other terminal punctuation) to conclude the preceding clause.

List items

To punctuate or not? Generally, I prefer to have something at the end of each list item. If they're standalone points, each list item can be a complete sentence:

This article discusses the elements of cat naming.

In which case, capitals and terminal punctuation, thank you.

If they're part of an extended clause:

This article discusses:

Then I suggest using semicolons (or commas, if you prefer) at the end of each item and terminal punctuation at the end of the last item.

A third option is to leave your list minimally punctuated. For example:

The naming of cats

This tends to be more suited to tech or procedural writing, but it has its place in other writing too.

A final word: Conjunctions

Generally, it's not necessary to include conjunctions in a list. However, lists are usually interpreted as and lists, which is an important consideration to bear in mind if your intention is to present an or list.

Once upon a time it was standard practice (in some circles, anyway) to add a conjunction to the second-last item on your list. So:

My favourite times for eating are:

When reading aloud, this matches the construction used in horizontal lists, or even in informal conversation. Its use isn't mandatory, and in some contexts is considered a little archaic.