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,
1 Avenue Gardens
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.
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.