Numbered Lists and Bullet Lists: Why and How?

There are five important things to watch for in numbered and bulleted lists:

  1. inconsistent capitalization.
  2. Inconsistent punctuation;
  3. Sometimes the grammar isn’t parallel between items.
  4. Whether a numbered list is being used when a bullet list would be more appropriate, or vice versa,
    1. and whether there are sub-lists,
      1. and whether they should be there,
        1. and if they are, whether they are properly formatted
      2. Items in a list should all be about the same size and importance. If one item is much longer than the others, it stands out quite a bit. As well, if the items in a list are all of paragraph length, perhaps what you have isn’t really a list, it’s just running text that’s been forced into list format.
      3. Making sure that a list has the number of items that you say it has.

If you’re editing according to a style manual such as The Chicago Manual of Style, you’ll have good guidance for many of these things. But even if your style is entirely at your discretion, you’ll still want to think before you list.

Use Numbers Only When You Need Numbers

Should a list be a bullet list or a numbered list? Many people like to use numbered lists because they seem more important. But if the numbers aren’t relevant, then… well, then they’re irrelevant. And the bigger problem is that, because they’re there, readers may assume that they’re relevant: that they indicate sequence, or importance, or number of shots to drink before reading each one.

Now, if you’re calling the list something like “Top 10 Reasons Your Lists Suck,” then even if the reasons are all about equal, you should still number them, because the number of items is relevant, even though the specific number isn’t relevant for each specific item. But if it’s just “Keep the following considerations in mind when designing lists,” then bullets it is.

So always treat unordered (bulleted) lists as the default style, and use numbers only when you have a good reason. But, on the other hand, if there is a good reason—such as a sequence of steps to do in a procedure—then don’t make it a bulleted list. Keep the readers on track and in order!

Oh, and by the way, if you say how many items there are in a list, make sure the list has that many items in it. This is especially important to check with bulleted lists, where it’s much less obvious and easier to miss, but it also happens with numbered ones. One of the great rules of revision is that people always add and remove items in lists.

Use Lists Only When You Need Lists

You don’t always need a list. You may be a very structured thinker, and have a mental order and priority that makes a list seem logical for your text, but the truth is that all texts are supposed to be logical and orderly (well, excepting certain literary genres). If the number and order are important but the items in your list are a full paragraph or more long, consider using ordinary paragraph styling with numbered headings or run-in heads.

Use Sub-Lists Only When You Really Need Sub-Lists

Also, before making a sub-list, stop and ask: do you really need one? Really? And if you really do, do you really really need a sub-sub-list? And if you really really do need a sub-list, do you really really really need a sub-sub-list? Are you sure sure sure?

Second-level and third-level (and fourth-level) lists are a digression, harder to follow, and a nuisance to format, and in some versions of the text (e.g., some e-books’) they won’t show up properly. If you can use a run-in list—you know, in a sentence, like this, this, and this—do. Keep sub-lists and sub-sub-lists in a metal box behind glass, and break the glass only in case of emergency.

Be Consistent

You don’t need to format different lists identically—though you do need to adhere to your house style, and if you use many different approaches to lists, your readers might get confused. But you do need to be consistent within a list. This means:

  • decide whether the items start with a capital letter, and do the same for all items;
  • make sure that the items are grammatically parallel—for instance, all noun phrases, or all gerunds, or all complete-sentence statements, or (as in this one) all imperatives;
  • do what you can to keep all the items similar in size—there’s a lot of latitude, but if five items are short phrases and the sixth is a multi-sentence paragraph, there’s probably a better way to handle it;
  • decide whether the items end with a period, a comma, a semicolon, or no punctuation, and do the same for all items (but put a period on the last one if you used commas or semicolons for the others).

If you’re following Chicago (CMOS 17, 6.130131), then items in a numbered list are usually capitalized, whereas items in a bulleted list don’t need to be—and if they’re introduced by an incomplete sentence that they complete, Chicago says they shouldn’t be. And, to quote Chicago, “If the items in a vertical list complete a sentence begun in the introductory text, semicolons or commas may be used between the items, and a period should follow the final item.”

Get Help

Lists may seem like simple mechanical tasks, but they can require careful editorial judgment. Some examples include:

  • In a step-by-step list, how many steps is “pour coffee into a cup, add cream and sugar and stir”?
  • What do you do when you have items that vary quite a bit in length—or are all a paragraph (or more) long?
  • Do you let different lists be styled according to what seems most natural for each, or do you keep them all consistent for the sake of tidiness?
  • Will semicolons be too formal, or will commas be too casual?
  • If you’re introducing a list with the first part of a sentence, should you use a colon, as many readers will expect, or no punctuation, as Chicago recommends?
  • Should you always capitalize items to make them look important, or should you resist the global spread of capitalism?

These are why editors exist! There’s no substitute for a good editorial judgment. But PerfectIt can help you automate some tasks to enforce your judgment more consistently and effectively. It will check to make sure that punctuation and capitalization are consistent within each list—so you never miss a stray comma or period, which can be annoyingly easy to do, especially in a longer text. And PerfectIt has a Chicago Manual of Style checker, so it can remind you of what CMOS says you should do in context when you need that advice most.

If you don’t already have PerfectIt, it’s free to try for 14 days. Click to get started. You’ll be glad you enlisted it!

Check bullet punctuation and capitalization automatically with PerfectIt