Using Lists—Vertical Lists
Vertical lists, sometimes referred to as ‘dot points’, have an important role in writing. The Style Manual (2002, p. 141) describes their role as a ‘visual signpost’ to help ‘readers absorb information, particularly when they are scanning material’. The material itemised in a list should have some importance to justify the emphasis. It’s important to note that vertical lists are only effective when they are internally consistent.
This article will explain how to ensure your lists are consistent and logical. We’ll outline the rules for capitalisation and end punctuation, and highlight the importance of parallel construction. By the end of this article, you’ll feel confident about constructing lists in your writing.
Colons Start Lists
Lists always start the same way. That is, they are always introduced by a colon. Regardless of whether the introductory statement is a complete sentence or a fragment, a colon is used at the end of the lead-in to the list (Style Manual, p. 142).
For this reason, avoid using a colon in dot points. Using a colon within the itemised section of the list would mean that more than one colon appears in the sentence.
Capitalisation and End Punctuation Rules
Capitalisation and end punctuation rules for vertical lists change depending on whether the listed items are fragments or full sentences. The main thing to remember is this: it’s important to be consistent.
If the items in the list are full sentences, each list item begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop. Here is an example:
The following rights have been established:
- You have the right to access the information relating to your child’s progress.
- You have the right to see any records relating to your child.
- You have the right to stand for election to local school–parent organisations.
If the listed items are fragments (not complete sentences), each list item begins with a lower-case letter and takes no punctuation, except for the last list item, which ends in a full stop. Here is an example of the previous list, presented with items that are sentence fragments:
You have the right to:
- access the information relating to your child’s progress
- see any records relating to your child
- stand for election to local school–parent organisations.
It’s worth restating: ensure listed items are not a mixture of full sentences and fragments.
Consistency in Vertical Lists
For lists to be effective in presenting information, they must be consistent.
Firstly, ensure all like lists are formatted in the same way. Do all the lists in your document have the same indent from the body text? Also, check that the same bullet point and/or numbering system has been used consistency across like lists.
Then ensure the items’ grammatical construction is parallel. Check that the same form of verb is used to begin each item. See our article, ‘Understanding Verb Forms—Part One’, for more information about verb forms.
Here’s an example of a poorly constructed list:
You must comply with the following:
- arriving on time to work
- sign in as soon as you arrive (see the clipboard on Mandy’s desk)
- Do not go offsite without telling a supervisor.
- Pay will go into your account on Thursdays. Please give your bank account details to Mandy.
You will notice this list is composed of fragments and sentences. Both capitalisation and end punctuation have been used inconsistently. The items begin in different tenses. One is phrased in the negative, which isn’t consistent with the rest of the list. Here’s an example of how this list could be presented:
You must comply with the following:
- Arrive to work on time.
- Sign in as soon as you arrive (see the clipboard on Mandy’s desk).
- Seek approval from a supervisor before going offsite.
- Give your bank account details to Mandy to process your pay. Pays are processed on Thursday.
With lists, consistency is important. Without consistency, lists are not effective in emphasising key information. For more information about lists, considering reading our article ‘Using Lists—Horizontal Lists’.
Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers. 2002. 6th ed. Revised by Snooks & Co. Milton, QLD: John Wiley & Sons.