Submitted by speedwell  •  February 10, 2004

List Punctuation

My co-worker and I are having a fight over the correct end punctuation for items in a bulleted or numbered list. An example of this type of list could be a set of instructions for filling out an expense report form:

- Employee’s full name - Amount - If you entertained a client for the Davis deal, write client’s name and company next to the amount. - Job code (if applicable) - If you have no code assigned to your job, write PENDING in the space.

She says you must always use a period after each item, regardless of length. I say you must use a period only if the item is a complete sentence, and that if some of the items are sentences and some are not, the entire list must be rewritten to make it consistent. Yet another co-worker holds that you must never use a period after list items. We can’t all be correct (and maybe none of us are!).

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The Chicago Manual of Style's rule on this is to separate entries with semicolons, and conclude the last item with a period (and, not incidentally, cast the whole list plus introductory phrasing so that it works as a complete sentence).

My unscientific observations lead me to think this rule is more often observed in the breach, and in some contexts, a semicolon just looks out of place. But a period after each item strikes me as wrong, because you haven't completed the thought until the list has ended.

So, to review, bulleted lists
- should have entries separated by semicolons;
- usually don't follow this rule;
- should end with a period.

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©Judy Vorfeld
"Before the introduction of word processing (via word processors and computers), most publications displayed lists in either outline form or numbered lists. Now we have bullets. This creates a new layer of confusion on how to use capitalization and punctuation in such lists. Following are some questions and answers to use as guidelines:

When is it better to use bullets than numbers?
Use numbered lists when you're working with instructions to be done in sequence, and the numbers suggest a hierarchy. The same applies when someone may refer to specific items by number. Numbered and unnumbered lists are more commonly used in scholarly publications. If numbers aren't essential, use bullets, especially in business documents.

When do I capitalize the first letter in a bulleted item?
In most cases, experts recommend that you start each bulleted item with a capital letter. We're so programmed to capitalize only proper nouns and the first word of a complete sentence that it almost seems wrong to capitalize single words and phrases. Do it anyway.

When do I use periods and when do I leave bulleted items without end punctuation?

RULE: Use periods after independent clauses, dependent clauses, or long phrases that are displayed on separate lines in a list. Example:

In this project, the equipment shall consist of:

Three horizontal centrifugal pumps with design temperature of 100 degrees F.
Three electric motors, in accordance with Appendices II and IIA.
Three steel base frames.

RULE: Use periods after short phrases that are essential to the grammatical completeness of the statement introducing the list. Example:

There are a number of tags used in HTML, including:

Image tags.
Background tags.
Paragraph tags.

RULE: It's not necessary to use periods after short phrases or single words in a list, if the introductory statement is grammatically complete (see below) or if the listed items are like those on an inventory sheet or a shopping list. Example:

The software in this price range offers many excellent features:

Windows 9x and up
Audio pronunciations
Rebate
Tutorial

RULE: When one item contains a complete sentence, punctuate all bulleted items as though they were complete sentences: capitalize the beginning words and use a period at the end of each item. Example:
You will not be accepted if you have been diagnosed with:

Arthritis.
High blood pressure.
Asthma or some allergies. Please list your allergies and give date of last flare-up.

RECOMMENDATION: If you're creating a long document full of bulleted items, you may choose to be consistent and end each item with a period.

RECOMMENDATION:
Never use the following format:

We strongly recommend that you

finish the project by Friday, January 23;
place everything you've turned in to date, plus this assignment, on a floppy disk; and
label all file pages (and the disk itself) with your designated code.

...HOWEVER: Chicago Manual of Style says you may use the following format for vertical lists (numbered or bulleted) punctuated as a sentence:

We strongly recommend that you
finish the project by Friday, January 23;
place everything you've turned in to date, plus this assignment, on a floppy disk;
label all file pages (and the disk itself) with your designated code.
If you write a lot of reports and documents with lists, you'll always do well if you follow the guidelines above, recognizing the need of the reader to grasp information quickly and easily.

I used The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition (Sabin), The Copyeditor's Handbook (Einsohn), and the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, (University of Chicago Press), to put these tips together.

References:
The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition (Sabin).
The Copyeditor's Handbook (Einsohn)."

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Charlene, that's a fairly comprehensive list, but it leaves out something that I've always had drilled into me (I'm a technical writer), namely that any bulleted list must be preceded by a complete sentence. For example:

Such information shall be available only under the following circumstances:

By local officials
Between local agencies
By federal officials
To comply with a court order

In this case, the listed items, although they are each dependent clauses, do not complete a sentence because the lead-in is already a complete sentence. So using a period after each one seems unnecessary, as does using a semi-colon after the first three and a period after the last one. Does the Gregg Manual address that issue?

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Bullets

Bullets are graphic devices that substitute for alpha-numeric designation of items in a list. In a bulleted list, the graphic device obviates normal grammatical punctuation.

1. In bulleted lists within text passages, the bullet is the punctuation. No other punctuation is required to separate listed items. Do not use commas or semicolons at the end of each item.
2. If an item in the bulleted list is a complete sentence, the first word should be capped and there should be a period at the end of the sentence. If the item is a nonsentence fragment, the first word should be lowercased, with a period placed at the end of the last item in the list.
3. Avoid mixing sentence and nonsentence items in a bulleted list. If you do mix and there is one bullet that is a complete sentence, then make every item at least two words, start every item with a cap and end with a period.
4. The real key is consistency. Style is NOT grammar.

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your co-worker is incorrect.

i had a bulleted list on my resume.
a friend of mine (psychologist/network admin & just all-around smart guy) and his english degree friend told me to leave the periods off.


why don't you look up your high school english teacher
as her what she thinks.

MSWord doesn't seem to care either way.

(as you can see, neither do i)

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I would think that the items in the bulleted list should be similar, making the list (according to Mr. Rice's Chicago Manual of Style) as follows.

- Enter the employee's full name;
- enter the amount to be reimbursed;
- if you entertained a client for the Davis deal, write the client's name and company next to the amount;
- enter your job code (if applicable), or PENDING if no code is assigned to your job.

The mixture of form-like specifiers and plain-English instructions is awkward and looks bad.

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Adam, thanks; don't know HOW I missed that one.

Digihippy, I'm with you... when I start seeing that even people whose business it is to know such things really neither know nor care, I start to wonder myself if the distinction is really that important.

Spyffe, you're correct, of course; I gave you the list as an example of the text to be corrected, not as I would have edited it.

Thanks everyone.

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If the "business document" is something someone might refer to in the future, especially correspondence where you expect an answer, I would suggest using numbers rather than bullets, regardless of the type of list, especially if it is a long list.

The person replying to you should be able to answer by saying something like:

"item 3: yes. item 6: total cost, $66,450. item 17 and 19: what are the tolerances? item 32: please provide your final spec so we can quote."

It is absolutely infuriating for someone to have to repeat the entire question in their reply just so you know what bullet they're answering.

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How do you punctuate a bulleted list that consists of single descriptions followed by an explanatory sentence.

Belly pain or discomfort (?) It can last several days.

Thinning or loss of hair (?) It will grow back at the end of treatment.

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When do you use ... (and what is it called, by the way)
and when do you use an elipses?

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pls send me list of punctuations list to me

thanks,
Suresh

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This is one of those focused versus focussed questions. Both focused and focussed are correct spellings of the same word. Some people use both, some people are enraged by the use of the one they think looks incorrect. Don't torture yourself.

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