Bullet Points

list with bullet points

Bullet points are a great way to present complex information…

These six, simple writing tips show you how to format and punctuate a list correctly.

Tip # 1: Be consistent

To keep things simple, choose one of the following three options:

  1. no punctuation
  2. separate, punctuated sentences for each list item
  3. one long, punctuated sentence.

Pick the most suitable one and follow that format. Avoid mixing them up, or you’ll confuse the reader.

Tip # 2: Use the first option for short, simple list items

If your list items are short – less than a single line of text and/or one sentence or less, you do not need punctuation.

This example shows a list of short, simple items:

  • this is item one
  • this is item two
  • this is item three

Note the colon (:) introduces the list. It goes just before the first bullet. Each bullet point starts with a small letter (not capitals). Some organizations prefer to have a full stop (period) at the end of the last bullet point. This is fine, but remember to be consistent.

Tip # 3: Use the second format if your list items are complete sentences

Look at the following example.

The speaker made three points.

  1. The world population has been rising since the industrial revolution.
  2. The global birth rate is falling.
  3. Population levels will peak in 2050, then plateau.

Again, the colon introduces the list. But this time, each bullet starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, like a normal sentence.

Tip # 4: Use the third format for either/or options

If you want to offer a choice of options, the third format is ideal.

Your options are to:

  • pay the bill by cheque;
  • fill in a direct debit form; or
  • arrange a bank transfer with your local branch.

This format allows you to keep the ‘or’ between the last two items. Note that each bullet point starts with a small letter and ends in a semicolon (i). On the last-but-one list item, the semicolon goes before the connecting word (‘or’, in this case) and there is a full stop (period) at the end of the last bullet point.

Tip # 5: Avoid repeating words in the stem

Using the same example as above, can you see what’s wrong with this version?

Your options are to:

  • pay the bill by cheque;
  • to fill in a direct debit form; or
  • to arrange a bank transfer with your local branch.

The writer has repeated the word ‘to’ in the stem (before the colon) and in the second and third list items. This is an error.

Tip # 6: When to avoid numbered lists

Generally speaking it doesn’t matter whether you use numbers, letters or bullet point symbols. However, numbers can suggest a ranking, so item number one may be considered ‘better’ or more important than item three. If you want to avoid this bias, opt for symbols.

For any kind of formal writing, use plain round or square bullet points rather than anything more complex.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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