The best way to use bullet points

Independent Thinker

We all have pet peeves, those things that make our blood pressures rise while others just shrug. One of my pet peeves has to do with bullet points. Bullet points? Yes, bullet points. I know the world is filled with more pressing issues like global warming, race relations, and the impact of Brexit, but when I see bulleted lists punctuated like this (highlighted in red below), it makes me cringe:

To demonstrate our Firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we provide internal programs that include:

  • hosting Diversity Roundtable Discussion Series for law students;
  • offering secondment opportunities for minority lawyers; and
  • providing US$1.6 million in tuition grants for minority students.

Looks fine to me, what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. What’s the purpose of bullet points? To separate items in a list. What’s the purpose of semicolons? To separate items in a list. What’s the purpose of the conjunction “and”? To separate items in a list.

Then why do you need all three? You don’t.

Bullet points, all by themselves, cue the reader that this is a list of separate but related items, which is why the minimalist in me grimaces when I see the unnecessary punctuation. And look how much cleaner a list looks without it:

To demonstrate our Firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we provide internal programs that include:

  • hosting Diversity Roundtable Discussion Series for law students
  • offering secondment opportunities for minority lawyers
  • providing US$1.6 million in tuition grants for minority students

Ahhhh, much better.

So why is using semicolons with “and” in bulleted lists so prevalent? Why do we find them throughout our Firm’s PowerPoint presentations, brochures, client alerts, newsletters, and email announcements? Because style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and APA Style say you should use them. Even our Firm’s Stylebook recommends taking this approach.

I still say you shouldn’t. Writing style rules vary depending on which guide you consult and they evolve as usage changes. I think The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA’s approach is old school and out of touch with the cleanest, most reader-friendly way to use bullet points in business and legal writing.

Many writing experts agree. One of my favorites is Grammar Girl, a magazine editor named Mignon Fogarty who produces the popular podcast, “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” I like her because she consults all of the style guides on a particular issue and makes recommendations based on what’s most logical and easiest for readers. Here’s what she has to say about bulleted lists:

Your text will be easier to read if you don’t put commas or semicolons after the items, and don’t put a conjunction such as “and” before the last item. All of these things are unnecessary clutter. If you find yourself wanting to format it this way, it probably means you should write it as a sentence instead of a list.

Exactly.

In this blog post, Best Practices for Bullet Points, business writing expert Lynn Gaertner-Johnston makes a similar point: “Avoid ending bullet points with semicolons. Semicolons have been used that way, but the style seems old-fashioned in today’s crisp documents.”

Amen.

So yes, if you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow The Chicago Manual of Style or APA Style, then go ahead and use them. (I’ll avert my eyes.) For anything else you write, I recommend avoiding them.

PUNCTUATION

Semicolons aside, what is the proper way to punctuate the items in a bulleted list? Good question. The major style guides make this pretty complicated. Here are the simple rules I follow:

1. If your list items are complete sentences, punctuate each item with a period or question mark.

During the corporate compliance conference, the speaker’s main points were:

  • The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is no longer the only concern for global companies.
  • Governments in countries like China and Brazil are increasingly enforcing local anti-corruption laws.
  • Companies now face stiffer penalties and higher fines in compliance investigations.
  • More enforcement authorities are focusing on prosecuting individuals in corporate corruption cases, not just the companies.

2. If your items are single words or sentence fragments, do not punctuate each item.  

During the corporate compliance conference, the speaker covered the following topics:

  • The impact of anti-corruption laws besides the FCPA
  • Increased enforcement in countries like China and Brazil
  • The rise in penalties and fines
  • Greater prosecution of individuals

As for how to punctuate your introductory statement leading into the list, I like this guidance from the Business Writers’ Blog best:

If your lead-in text is a complete sentence, use a colon. If the lead-in is a sentence fragment, you can omit the colon, or use it. It’s up to you—either is okay.

For consistency, I prefer to always use a colon for my introductory statement, such as in my examples above.

CAPITALIZATION

Should you capitalize the first word of every bullet? Again, it depends. Most style guides say if your items are complete sentences, you should. If they are fragments, you should not. However, I prefer the Grammar Girl’s guidance on this:

If your list item is a complete sentence, capitalize the first letter. If your list item isn’t a complete sentence, you can choose whether or not to capitalize the first letter—it’s a style choice. The only thing that is important is to be consistent. I capitalize the first letter of everything in lists because it’s easier to remember “capitalize everything” than it is to remember “capitalize complete sentences and use lowercase for sentence fragments.”

Personally, I always capitalize the first word of each list item not just because it’s easier to remember, but because I think it looks better. Not capitalizing reminds me of the design trend of using lower case for proper nouns in baby announcements and wedding invitations, such as, “save the date! dave & laurie to tie the knot!” To me, it looks informal.

PARALLELISM

Now that we’ve come this far, be sure to use parallel construction in your bulleted lists. What is parallel construction? It means being consistent. Each list item should follow the same structure. That means using all complete sentences or all fragments, not a mixture. It means using all statements or all questions, not a mixture.

It also means if you start your first bullet with a verb, all of your bullets should start with verbs — and they should be in the same tense. If you start with a noun, they should all start with nouns. This is important for readability. A common mistake I see in our Firm communications is this type of mix and match:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16 are:

  • Having an LGBT liaison in every office
  • Biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Maintaining a Global Listening Ear Program
  • Annual event for additional support

What’s the parallelism violation here? The first and third items in this list start with verbs, “having” and “maintaining”; the second and last items start with noun phrases, “biannual calls” and “annual event.” To maintain consistency, you should start all items with verbs like this:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16 are:

  • Having an LGBT liaison in every office
  • Holding biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Maintaining a Global Listening Ear Program
  • Hosting an annual event to provide additional support

Or with all noun phrases (adjectives + nouns) like this:

Our diversity and inclusion goals for FY16:

  • LGBT liaisons in every office
  • Biannual Global Affinity Calls
  • Global Listening Ear Program
  • Annual event to provide additional support

FINAL TIPS

Other bullet point tips I find helpful are to avoid using letters (a, b, c) in a vertical list because it looks too much like a multiple choice test. Instead, use bullets. Also avoid using numbers unless your list contains items that need to happen in a specific order (such as a list of step-by-step instructions) or you are using a “Top 5” or “Top 10” list format, like this:

The Five Essential Elements of Compliance are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Risk assessment
  3. Standards and controls
  4. Training
  5. Oversight

We’ve covered a lot of ground on this very important issue of bullet points. To help you remember the main points, I’ll leave you with, what else, two bulleted lists that summarize my tips.

Do:

  • Use a colon after the phrase or sentence setting up your list.
  • Capitalize the first word of each bullet, particularly when it’s a complete sentence.
  • Punctuate complete sentences with periods or question marks.
  • Be consistent about how you start each bullet by using all nouns or all verbs in the same tense.

Don’t:

  • Use semicolons or the conjunction “and” after the items in your list.
  • Punctuate the items in your list if they are sentence fragments.
  • Use numbers unless your items need to be sequential.
  • Use letters instead of bullets.
  • Mix and match how you start each bullet.

Thanks, I feel better already.

2 thoughts on “The best way to use bullet points

  1. Jill Hallpike August 30, 2016 / 11:12 am

    Hi Laurie, interesting post as always. In defence of the lawyers, I think the habit of using bullet point lists separated by semi-colons, with the penultimate bullet followed by “and” or “or”, stems from our scrutiny of such lists in legislation, when it’s crucial to know whether, for example, conditions listed in the bullet points are cumulative or selective. So it can be helpful where this distinction needs to be clear. Having said this, there’s no need of course to draft communications as if you were drafting legislation, so it’s helpful to be reminded that if for example we’ve already introduced our list by saying something like “”including”, we don’t need the semi-colons. Regards, Jill

    • Ian Parkes March 15, 2017 / 4:55 pm

      Hi Jill,

      If the points in a list could be cumulative or selective – or that needs to be clarified, is a bullet point list the best way to display them?

      One of the prerequisites for bullet points lists is that the information in them should be capable of being arranged in parallel.

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