Lists aren’t just for grocery shopping. When you want to convey a lot of information quickly, making a list can be a clean, easy-to-read way to do it. But once you decide what to include in your list, how are you supposed to punctuate it? Should it have bullet points? Semicolons? Read on to learn the best punctuation for list-making.
In-Line Lists vs. Bullet-Point Lists
There are two main ways to include a list in your writing — in-line text or with bullet points — and each has benefits.
Bullet-point lists, or displayed lists, are best when conveying brief, direct information.
I need to buy these things:
- A rug
- Two small nightstands
- A nightlight
Notice that each of the first words is capitalized. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about this, but stay consistent. The same goes for punctuation. The list can be introduced with a colon or a period, and each item should end with the same punctuation. The above example could also be punctuated more like a sentence, while retaining the bullet points.
I need to buy these things:
- A rug;
- Two small nightstands;
- A nightlight.
If you’re conveying a larger idea within a longer sentence, an in-line list may work better.
I need to pick up a rug, a nightlight, and two small nightstands to furnish the guest room before my sister visits.
Notice how the in-line list contains the same items as the previous bullet-point list, but here, it’s part of the larger story of why these items are needed. The list remains the same, but the effect is different.
Colons, Semicolons, and Commas, Oh My!
First step complete: You’ve decided on the best form for your list. Now, what should you do about pesky punctuation marks like colons, semicolons, and commas?
Consistency is key.
- Introduce a bullet-point list with either a colon or a period.
- Capitalize each item in the bullet-point list the same way.
- Decide how you want to punctuate the end of each item, and stick to it.
- If semicolons are used at the end of list items, don’t forget to end your list with a period.
You can also use colons to introduce in-line lists, but doing so is a strong stylistic choice.
Example: I faced a few choices: Go home, go back to the office, or go to the movies.
Commas are the go-to choice when creating an in-text list.
Example: My favorite types of music are blues, rock, and country.
The Oxford, or serial, comma (the one after “rock” in the previous example) deserves its own discussion, but consistency, again, is the most important rule. Unless you're writing with a specific style — like Chicago or MLA — you can choose to use an Oxford comma or not. Some writers find it helps clarify a sentence. Others swear it doesn’t.
Then there’s the semicolon. It can be an intimidating punctuation mark, but when you’re listing information that includes a description or a comma, a semicolon creates clarity.
Example: We went to Middletown, CT; New York City, NY; and Charleston, SC.
The next time you make a packing list, or plan a grocery trip, try doing it with a little bit of punctuation style.
Featured photo credit: Photoevent/ iStock