How to use bulleted lists

how to write, structure, present, and punctuate lists

Bulleted lists – the basics

Bulleted lists are used when you wish to draw visual attention to a number of similar items.

  • works of fiction
  • diaries and biographies
  • dictionaries and reference books

This arrangement makes it easier for the reader to see, absorb, and understand the items. You can see that it is much easier than if the items were listed as part of one continuous sentence. Here are the same three items.

  • This section of the library contains works of fiction, diaries and biographies, plus dictionaries and reference books.

A bulleted list draws attention to the similarities of the items. It is a form of categorization, which also helps the reader digest the information. You can see at a glance that this is a group of European capital cities.

  • Paris
  • Berlin
  • Madrid
  • Rome

Presentation

Most word-processors or text editors will give you a choice of presentation styles for your bulleted lists. The list items may be preceded by

  • a bullet   (•)
  • a numeral   (3)
  • a letter   (A)
  • an icon   (†)

If you stick to the suggestions made here, a short bulleted list should serve most purposes. Use a numbered list only if the numbering system is related to the sequence of the items or has some other significance. There is no purpose in having numbers for their own sake.

Numerals may be offered as Arabic numbers (3, 4, 5, 6) or Roman numerals (iii, iv, v, vi). Unless you have a pressing need to do so, avoid lower case Roman numerals (viii) – because this gives the reader extra work in comprehension.

Icons should be used with restraint. Many documents and PowerPoint presentations are spoiled by huge arrows, tick marks, blobs, and pointers distracting the reader’s attention from the importance of what is being said.


Golden rules for bulleted lists

There are a number of different styles and conventions for presenting bulleted lists, but these are the most important (yet most-neglected).

  • The maximum number of items should be five.
  • The listed items should be similar in kind.
  • The statements should be grammatically parallel.
  • The statements should be of similar length.

Five is the golden maximum

With a maximum of five items in a bulleted list, the reader can recognise the individual items and the group as a whole. Once there are more than five items, it is not possible to see the group as a whole at the same time as understanding individual items. The more items you put into a bulleted list, the less effective it becomes.

Similar kinds of items

A bulleted list is most effective when the items listed are of a similar kind, the same order, or have something obviously in common. Here’s an example.

  • shoes
  • shirts
  • ties
  • trousers
  • jackets

This is obviously a collection of items in men’s clothing. You can see the separate items at a glance, but you can also see what they have in common, or to which general category they belong.

But if a bulleted list contains items which do not have a logical connection, this element of immediate categorisation is lost – as in the following example.

  • potatoes
  • apples
  • olive oil
  • frying pan

This could be the items in a recipe, but it could equally well be a shopping list.

It is not unusual to see bad examples of bulleted lists even in public announcements – such as a job advertisement.

  • two years experience
  • a first class degree
  • three weeks annual holiday
  • Equal opportunities

This is a collection of different kinds of items. The individual items are related to the job, but the first two are requirements of the applicant, whereas the third is a benefit of employment, and the fourth is a condition of employment.

Grammatical parallelism

If your list items are statements or instructions, each one should be expressed using the same grammatical pattern as the others. Here’s a good example that uses instructions.

In the event of a fire, all employees should immediately

  1. Vacate the office
  2. Use the fire escape
  3. Exit the building
  4. Assemble in the car park

The grammatical formula here is very simple – Verb + Noun.

Here’s a bad example of the same set of instructions

In the event of a fire, all employees should immediately

  • When you hear the fire alarm, you should leave the office immediately
  • Do NOT use the main stairs, as this could be dangerous.
  • All exits are clearly marked and should be used.
  • There is an emergency assembly point at the far end of the car park.
  • Copies of Health and Safety regulations are kept in the manager’s office. Any complaints should be entered on the incidents sheets. Please note – it is an offence to make false entries or accusations.

Punctuation of bulleted lists

Bulleted lists are often used to give examples of something mentioned in a previous statement – as in the following example.

For breakfast visitors will be given a choice of –

  • corn flakes or rice crispies
  • fruit juice or yoghurt
  • grapefruit or museli with cream

The opening statement can be left without any punctuation, a dash may be used, or you can use a colon. But the question arises – should the listed items be regarded as the conclusion of a sentence or not? That is, do they need to be punctuated with commas (or semicolons) and a full stop?

Some people try to continue the grammar and punctuation into the list – as if they were separate possible endings to the statement. If the bulleted list has been constructed properly, this should not be necessary. That’s because the natural grammar and punctuation of the ‘statement’ has already been visually disrupted by the introduction of the list.

Punctuation is only necessary if the statements in the list are complete sentences.The modern tendency is to minimalise punctuation.

If the items in the list are clearly separate statements, a new question arises. Should the items in the list begin with a capital letter? The answer is ‘Yes – but only if they are complete sentences’. Have a look at this example.

When first attending the exhibition, you will have three options.

  • You can visit all zones if you have a full day pass.
  • You can visit sections in the red zone with a half day pass.
  • You can top up to a full day pass at any time.

The items in this list are short, separate statements, so they are punctuated by an initial capital letter and ended with a full stop.


Indentation

Bulleted lists are normally indented – just as they appear on this web page. The same indentation would apply on a paper document. Most word-processors will arrange this automatically, just as the HTML code does the same for a web page.


Nested lists

Sometimes it might be necessary to have a list within a list. This often happens in lengthy and complex reports.

There are two popular methods for dealing with nested lists. The first is to use a numbering system. The second is to change the bullet styling.

  • The government recognises the need for housing subsidies.
  • It will provide subsidies for three types of housing.
    1. council housing
    2. private housing
    3. mixed housing
  • Subsidies cannot be claimed for office buildings.

© Roy Johnson 2012


Documentation links

Bulleted Lists Microsoft Manual of Style

Bulleted Lists Writing guides compared

Bulleted Lists Hot Text: Web Writing that Works


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2 Responses to “How to use bulleted lists”

  1. Mike Unwalla says:

    You wrote, “Use a numbered list only if the numbering system is related to the sequence of the items or has some other significance.”

    I agree.

    In the section ‘Grammatical parallelism’, the first bulleted list is a set of instructions. Sequence is important. Therefore, a numbered list is better than a bulleted list.

  2. Roy Johnson says:

    Well spotted Mike! I was so intent on creating the grammatical parallelism, that I overlooked the fact that the instructions formed a sequence. So I have changed it to a numbered list.

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