The Art of Bullet Lists

It’s easy to go wrong with bullet lists. Should it have a period at the end? Should it start with a capital letter? Here are some guidelines to make things simple.

Bullet Lists v Number Lists

When do you use bullets instead of numbers?

Use number lists to:

  • Identify a sequence of actions to be taken.
  • Show the reader which steps to follow.
  • If there are a specific number of items you want to highlight, e.g. In this recipe there are three ingredients…

Use bullet lists to:

  • Outline a set of instructions, e.g. pack the following before traveling. The order isn’t important, just the contents.
  • List items.

Capitalize Bullet Lists

When to capitalize the first letter in a bulleted item.

Start each bulleted item with a capital letter.

Capitalize proper nouns and the first word of a complete sentence.

Bullet Lists Periods, Full stops and Punctuation

When should you use periods (full stops) and have bulleted items end without punctuation?

  1. Use periods after independent clauses, dependent clauses, or long phrases that are displayed on separate lines in a list. For example: MS Office has the following features: Content Management. Printing capabilities. Programming add-ins.
  2. Use periods after short phrases that are essential for the completeness of the statement introducing the list. For example: MS Word has a number of features, including: Indexing, Ribbons, and HTML tools.
  3. Don’t use periods after short phrases or single words in a list if the introductory statement is grammatically complete.
  4. When one item contains a complete sentence, punctuate all bulleted items.
  5. Capitalize the first words and put a period at the end of each item.

For example:

You will not be accepted into the Army if you have engaged in:

Criminal Activities.

Anti-Government demonstrations.

Violent history.

Please list all occasions when you were arrested or detained.

Conclusion

If you’re creating a long document full of bulleted lists, be consistent and decide at the start to end each item with, or without, a period. Within a grouping, always use all periods or no periods. Try not to alternate throughout the document.

What else would you add?

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