How to punctuate a list of bullet points
Lists make life easy. Lists make things clear.
Punctuating lists is not as easy. And for most of us, punctuating lists is not so clear.
Let’s get this sorted so we all know what we’re doing...
How should you punctuate the copy in your bullet points?
Rules (and regret)
There are as many ways to punctuate a list as I had terrible haircuts in those five years I lived in Shoreditch. Either thought is a thought you’d rather not think about.
Each writing style guide has their own set of ‘rules’. And each set of ‘rules’ has a bunch of variants depending on the type of list, just how wordy those points are and your style preference.
In this post I’ll share the four most common ways to punctuate a list. More common than that over-bleached, bowl-cut bob I had circa 2009.
A list about lists
There are a few things we need to watch out for when writing (and proofreading) lists:
- punctuation at the end of the opening sentence (full stops or colons – no dashes!)
- capital or lowercase letters at the start of each point
- punctuation at the end of each point
- punctuation at the end of the last point in the list
- bullet style and indentation amount
You want to be consistent in how you type them. Inconsistency is a whopping distraction.
I’m not going to talk about the bullet style and indentation. That’s up to you. Just be consistent!
And when I refer to a list of bullet points, I’m talking about numbered lists too. Numbering is handy for showing the hierarchy of your information.
Four ways to punctuate a list of bullet points
What: The opening text is a full sentence. So are the individual bullet points.
Opening sentence: Capital letter and either a full stop or a colon [:].
Bullet points: Capital letters and full stops.
Make sure that all your bullet points are full sentences. You don't want any fragmented ones to sneak in with a full stop by mistake.
There are a few reasons why I’m a fan of microwave cooking.
- I don’t have to defrost Quorn in advance because, like the lazy vegetarian I am, I can thaw it out in a flash.
- I don’t often notice that I’m hungry until I’M HUNGRYYYY.
- I’m impatient when it comes to food. I just want to shove that stuff in my chops.
What: The opening text is the start of the sentence. It combines with the bulleted text to create one continuous sentence.
Opening sentence: Use a colon at the end to show that the sentence carries on.
Bullet points: Use a lowercase initial letter as it follows on from the opening text. You can end each bullet using one of the three approaches below as the style is up to you.
EXAMPLE 2: Dashingly formal
I like to wear leotards because:
- they’re wonderfully elasticated;
- there’s no need to wear a bra; and
- the ‘80s vibe suits me so damn well.
EXAMPLE 3: A little punctuation
Sometimes (just sometimes) I microwave:
- frozen Quorn sausages
- fish fingers, and
EXAMPLE 4: A clean appeal
I’m known to regularly bang on about:
- menstrual cups (they’re ace)
- Xena Warrior Princess.
However clutter-free I like my copy, we need to be mindful of who (or what) is reading the text.
At the moment, software that reads text aloud won’t stop at the final bullet if there’s no full stop. It’ll assume it's part of the text below and read it that way. With text-to-speech options for the web, Adobe, Microsoft and Google Drive, we need to keep this in mind.
But if you look at The Guardian's style guide, it says no full stop. And I don't use them.
Be mindful of your audience. But you don't necessarily need to add them in if it's not your style either. So...
You do you
Our lists might not fit so neatly into those options above. We have our own writing styles. Our own way that we want to share that specific information. Our readers have their own needs too.
And I’ve only touched on four ways that bullet pointed lists are punctuated. There are a number of variants of these styles out there. They all tinker around with the same punctuation and general gist. Just in slightly different ways.
I mainly use the clean appeal and full sentence formats for my lists. But sometimes I mix it up with a hybrid approach if I feel it suits the copy and message.
Whatever you do...
Keep it consistent!
Whichever style you choose for each type of list, please promise me you’ll punctuate that style in exactly the same way across your copy. I can help you with hyphens and en/em dashes too if you want to be sure things are extra swish.
And I promise never to go for an asymmetric pixie-style hair cut again.