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Bullet points – grammar and punctuation

Last week we talked about when to use bullet points and how to personalise them. This week, we’re going to have a look at the actual language of bullet points, including top tips on making them easy to understand for the reader. There are two parts to this: word forms / grammar and punctuation.

Punctuation in bullet points

Over recent years there has been a shift towards less punctuation and “cleaner” looking documents. I remember this being called “open” punctuation, and it’s the difference between typing an address as:

1, Avenue Gardens,

Brighton,

BN1 1AA.

and

1 Avenue Gardens

Brighton

BN1 1AA

Of course there is a place for punctuation, but it can get a bit messy looking, and I’m all for clean lines as long as you don’t forget your semi colons within normal runs of text!

So, here are some things not to do. We never introduce a list in a sentence with a semi colon, and we don’t introduce a bulleted or numbered list with one, either.

It used to be the case that we included semi colons and even “and”s at the end of every line. But I think that does look old-fashioned and cluttered nowadays …

Regarding the full stop at the end of the last bullet point … well, the jury is out on that one. It’s one of those style choices that don’t have a specific rule. I’ve checked in my New Oxford Style Manual and my Oxford Guide to Plain English: the former doesn’t talk about the punctuation much at all, and the latter has some general standards to consider following.

Here are my suggestions:

  • If the bullet points come in the middle of a sentence, and it is still clear when you read that sentence even though it’s got bullets in the middle, you can
    • start each bullet point with a lower case letter
    • put a full stop at the end.
  • If the bullet points are very short and don’t form a sentence, like this:
    • Start with a capital
    • Don’t add full stops
    • Use full stops sparingly
  • It is fine to add a full stop at the end of each bullet if the bullet points are long and include:
    • More than one line of text which therefore forms a solid block when you look at it on the page.
    • More than one sentence. It would look odd to have a full stop there and not here.

In summary:

But the single most important thing to do is KEEP IT CONSISTENT within each bulleted list! If you use capital letters or lower case letters to start each bullet, keep them the same throughout. If you end the first bullet with a full stop, end each of them with a full stop.

But of course, you can use different styles for different lists, as the context demands, although I’d be wary of having wildly different ones very close together, as it can look messy.

And this point on keeping it consistent brings me on to …

Grammar in bullet points

We insert bullet points into a text to make it more easy for the reader to understand. This means that the grammar within the bullet points should be consistent, so the reader doesn’t end up scratching their head and going over and over the same bit of text, trying to work it out.

Have a look at this example, and you’ll see what I mean:

Even if the reader can understand the basic sense of this, the uncomfortable disconnect between the different grammatical forms bring the reader’s attention to the form of the text and not the meaning of its content. And that’s not what good, clear writing should do. However, this is one of the most common mistakes I find in the text I proofread and edit. Especially if the bulleted list is long, the writer will lose track part way through and start going all inconsistent.

This is what that list above should look like:

Nice and tidy: everything following the same structure.

The grammar of bullet points must be consistent and matching so that the reader is not confused. It’s a different matter with the punctuation, which is, when it comes down to it, more of a matter of choice. Personally, I prefer capital letters and no full stop in my bullet points, which is why, if you’re my client and your bullet point punctuation is a little inconsistent, you’ll find me using that as standard!

So now you know all about how to insert and customise bulleted and numbered lists, and the grammar and punctuation to use with them! I hope you have found this helpful.

This is part of my series on how to avoid time-consuming “short cuts” and use Word in the right way to maximise your time and improve the look of your documents. Find all the short cuts here

Do let me know if this has helped you – and do share with the buttons at the bottom of this article.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2012 in Language use, New skills, Short cuts, Writing

 

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What does a copyeditor do?

I’ve noticed that people have been finding this website and blog by searching for “what does an editor do”?  So I thought a quick example or two might be in order!

What a copyeditor actually does is make sure the text the author has written doesn’t have spelling, grammar, punctuation and factual errors.  When I’m copyediting a piece, I work in several different ways (according to how my client wants me to work with them):

- a Word document and “track changes” – I turn Track Changes on in Word and it shows up exactly what I do, whether it’s deleting something, moving it, or adding a word here and there.  I also use the “comments” facility to highlight a word or phrase and then ask a question or offer some alternatives.   When the client receives the document from me, they choose “show final markup” in Track Changes (or similar, depending on what word processor they’re using) and then go through accepting or rejecting my changes with the click of a button.  I always work like this with students, so they have to decide whether to accept each change, retaining ownership and authorship over the piece of work.  But some other clients like me to do this too.

- a Word document with the changes already made. This is sometimes called a “clean copy”.  I make the changes I think are needed, and the client trusts that I’m right and doesn’t need me to tell them what I’ve done.  I work like this with some clients from the start; some move over to this format after we’ve worked together for a while.  If a client isn’t a student, I offer them one of each of these two, then they can see what I’ve done but don’t have to go through accepting each change.

- an annotated PDF.  I work this way with clients whose work is already in PDF format, or when I’m copyediting web pages.  I print a copy of each web page to PDF or open the PDF document, and use a dedicated application that allows me to highlight parts of the text and add call-out boxes with comments in.  Clients who use this method include anyone who has a set of web pages, and, for example, magazine publishers, who send me the pages as they will look in the final magazine (check back soon for information on when this constitutes “proofreading”).

So, for an example, I’ve made up a piece of text that’s riddled with errors, and then I present my corrected copy underneath.  So I don’t inadvertently plagiarise someone, I’ve used my own text from another blog post.

———

From the author:

Now I’ve got more flexibility in my time-table, I suggested to my friend Laura who also works from home (and cafes, and her office…that we add in some “co-working” time to our regular lunches. The definition of coworking has extended from its original ‘working with colleauges’ idea to include working in paralell with other people, who are probably not your direct colleagues, in a space which is probably not both of your offices. That sounds a bit muddled – it’s basicly those set of people with laptop’s sitting around a big tables in your local cafe.

So, we decided to try doing this ata local cafe, and now we decided to start writing a irregular series of reviews of local venues with free wifi in which it’s possible (or possible) to work. We’re going to work our way around Queens Heath and then possibly venture farther a field.

My corrected version:

Now I’ve got more flexibility in my timetable, I suggested to my friend Laura, who also works from home (and cafes, and her office … ) that we add in some “co-working” time to our regular lunches. The definition of co-working has extended from its original “working with colleagues” idea to include working in parallel with other people, who are probably not your direct colleagues, in a space which is probably not either of your offices. That sounds a bit muddled – it’s basically those sets of people with laptops sitting around a big table in your local cafe.

So, we decided to try doing this at a local cafe, and then we decided to start writing an irregular series of reviews of local venues with free wifi in which it’s possible (or impossible) to work. We’re going to work our way around Kings Heath and then possibly venture further afield.

———-

There are some variants: a substantive copyedit, for example, will include all of the above work, plus I’ll be looking for inconsistencies in the text as a whole: for example, a character in a biography’s name changing, or the layout of a house being inconsistent in a novel – a bit like being a continuity person for a film.

In the next few weeks, I’ll talk about what a proofreader, copy writer and transcriber does (maybe even a copy typist, too!)

 

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And these are only the mistakes I noticed …

Over on my book review blog, I talk about a book which was so riddled with errors (including missing commas, typos, missing semi colons, a lack of fact-checking and plain odd sentences) that it completely put me off the text and I felt compelled to mark them all up and then write them all down …

 

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On the humble apostrophe

I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything on the apostrophe, as it seems such a basic thing that people like me who work with words tend to go on about (we don’t really roam the streets, Sharpie in hand, looking for hapless greengrocers … )

But then I noticed more and more confusions, and a friend or two mentioned that they still weren’t sure, so: the humble apostrophe.

Turning to the dictionary, an apostrophe is “an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person or personified thing.” Oh – not the one we want. OK, it’s “a punctuation mark (‘) used to indicate either possession or the omission of letters or numbers.” That’s better.

Let’s move on to Hart’s Rules, which, oddly enough, contains the rules of English. The following information is summarised from Hart’s. Please do pay attention to all but the ones I mark as terribly hard – they are the ones where you need to know there’s something funny about them and you’ll need to look them up. That’s what we all do, just to check …

The apostrophe is used in two ways – to show possession (ownership) and to mark where letters or numbers have been missed out.

Possession
Easy
– Use an apostrophe and an s with a normal single noun or indefinite pronoun to show possession – the girl’s job, the box’s contents, anyone’s guess.
A bit harder
– Use the apostrophe and s combination for plural nouns that don’t end in s – people’s opinions, children’s toys.
– Do NOT use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns: hers, its, ours, yours, theirs – theirs is the kingdom of heaven, a friend of yours, give the dog its dinner (it’s easier to remember the “its” rule if you think of it belonging to this section).
A bit harder still
– Use the apostrophe alone (no s after it) after plural nouns that DO end in s – our neighbours’ gardens, other countries’ borders.
– In compound and “of” phrases, the apostrophe (and the plural, in fact) go after the last noun – my sister-in-law’s son, the King of Spain’s estates.
– Use an apostrophe and s with personal names ending with an s, x, or z sound – Charles’s, Dickens’s, Marx’s and Jesus’s.
Ever so hard (to be honest I sometimes have to look these up and I don’t often see them used correctly) …
– Use an apostrophe and no s when talking about time passing – in a few days’ time, a few weeks’ holiday. But if it’s in the name of a war, no apostrophe – The Hundred Years War.
– A double possessive (making use of both “of” and an apostrophe) may be used with nouns related to living beings or personal names – a speech of Churchill OR a speech of Churchill’s. But it’s not used with nouns referring to organisations, etc. – a friend of the National Gallery.
– A double set of nouns – apostrophe and s go after them if they are acting together – Broomfield and Dexter’s “The Rules of Grammar” – but not if they’re separate – Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s tragedies.
– Apostrophe and no s for a singular noun that ends in an s or z sound combined with “sake” – for goodness’ sake, for old times’ sake (times here is a plural so has the apostrophe after the s). This is the one I have to look up. Maybe you should save this blog post for those purposes.
Believe me, there are more obscure rules, for example those dealing with Greek names. If you need to know, ask me!

Plurals
Just – don’t. If you really, really need to differentiate, you are just about allowed a small, occasional one, only in examples like – dot the i’s and cross the t’s, find all the number 5’s. But that’s it. And there’s not one with numbers any more, although this has changed in the last decade or so: the 1980s not the 1980’s.

Contractions/omissions
Easy
Use an apostrophe when a letter or number has been missed out: won’t, we’ll, bo’sun, ’70s, it’s warm out today.
A bit harder
Don’t use an apostrophe before a word that’s been shortened but is now in general use – flu, cello and phone, not ‘flu, ‘cello and ‘phone.
If the apostrophe replaces the beginning or end of a word, it has a space before/after it to make the word stay separate – rock ‘n’ roll. If the apostrophe replaces a letter in the middle of the word, no space – ma’am, o’er.
Madly hard to remember
An apostrophe is used before the suffix when an abbreviation functions as a verb – KO’d, OD’ing.

References
Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th rev. ed.) Oxford: OUP, 2008.
New Hart’s Rules Oxford: OUP, 2005.

 

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