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How to Punctuate a List: Run-in, Bulleted, and Numbered Lists

Bijgewerkt op: 28 jun.

Conveying information with a list can make a dense piece of information instantly clear. It’s also great for procedural steps like you use in recipe books or how-to/self-help books.

 

But how do you actually punctuate your lists accurately?

 

In this article, I’ll explain when you use a list, which types of lists there are, and how you punctuate them. Spoiler: there are several ways you can do this. The most important thing is to be consistent with your punctuation.

 


How to punctuate a list: run-in, bulleted, and numbered lists

When to use a list

When you have a lot of text, it's helpful to the reader to add a list. It can help them understand important information at a glance, for instance.

 

By breaking up your text, you improve readability.

 

However, there are several types of lists that you can use. What are these and when do you use which one?

 

The different types of lists

Run-in lists

A run-in list is a simple list within the same line of text (also called a horizontal list). For instance:

 

We meet every week on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

 

The items on the list are the days of the week.

 

A run-in list can be more complex, for instance:

 

I would love to visit the following cities: Barcelona, Spain; Paris, France; Bangkok, Thailand; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

Generally, you use run-in lists for simple lists that are easy to read. If you want to convey a lot of information or some type of instruction, it’s best to use a vertical list, like a bulleted or numbered list.

 

Bulleted lists

A bulleted list is an unordered list. This means that the list items have a bullet, another type of marker, or no marker at all, and that the order in which the items appear doesn’t matter.

 

For instance:


I would love to visit the following cities:

  • Barcelona, Spain

  • Paris, France

  • Bangkok, Thailand

  • Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

A bulleted list can have an introductory sentence such as in the example above, or be a sentence fragment that fits before each item. For instance:

 

The applicant should:

  • have a medical background

  • be a team player

  • be able to use Microsoft Word.

 

Note how, in the example above, each separate item fits with the introductory sentence fragment.

 

Numbered lists

You should only use a numbered list when the order of the items matters. This is the case for recipes or anything that requires procedural steps.

 

For instance:

 

Follow these steps to make mashed potatoes:

 

  1. Boil the potatoes.

  2. Drain the potatoes, but leave some liquid in the pan.

  3. Add some milk to the potatoes.

  4. Mash the potatoes. Add more milk if necessary.

  5. Add a slice of butter and stir it through the mashed potatoes.

  6. Season the mashed potatoes with salt and pepper to your liking.

 

Note that in this example, the items comprise complete sentences. However, a numbered list can also consist of sentence fragments.

 

Punctuating the lists

So, how do you actually punctuate a list?

 

As you can see in the examples, this differs between the types of lists. So, I’m going to discuss them separately.

 

Run-in lists

Generally, the items in a run-in list are separated by a comma. The only thing you need to consider is whether you’ll use the Oxford comma or not. This is the comma before the “and.”

 

For instance, “We meet every week on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday,” is with the Oxford comma.

 

We meet every week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

 

This is without the Oxford comma.

 

Either way is correct. Just ensure that you pick one option and use it consistently.

 

When your list is a bit more complex, it’s common to use a semi-colon between the list items. This is the case when your list items also contain a comma, as in the example above: I would love to visit the following cities: Barcelona, Spain; Paris, France; Bangkok, Thailand; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

Again, if you don’t use an Oxford comma, you would omit the semi-colon before the and in this example.

 

It’s also possible to use letters or numbers in a run-in list to specify the items. You enclose the letters and numbers within parentheses. These examples come from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS):

 

Compose three sentences to illustrate analogous uses of (1) commas, (2) em dashes, and (3) parentheses.

 

For the duration of the experiment, the dieters were instructed to avoid (a) meat, (b) bottled drinks, (c) packaged foods, and (d) nicotine.

 

While this isn’t often used in books, it’s common in scientific papers.

 

Bulleted lists

The punctuation of a bulleted list will depend on the style guide you use. Each style guide will have its own kind of rules when it comes to punctuating sentences. For instance, CMOS says that bulleted lists have no end punctuation and begin lowercase (except for proper nouns). For instance:

 

The applicant should:

  • have a medical background

  • be a team player

  • be able to use Microsoft Word

 

However, you can also choose to add a period to the end of the last item of the list.

 

Conversely, you can also have punctuation after each item, such as a comma or semicolon. A very formal (and usually outdated) way to punctuate your list is like this:

 

The applicant should:

  • have a medical background;

  • be a team player; and

  • be able to use Microsoft Word.

 

If your list comprises complete sentences, you’d format the items with a period and a capital letter. For example:

 

You can use the search function in Word in different ways:

  • To search for a particular word in the text, go to search and type in the word.

  • To exchange one word for another word, go to search & replace, fill out the word you want to replace, and type in the new word underneath.

  • To search for highlighted text, go to search & replace, click more options, select formatting, and then marking.

 

If you’re unsure, look at the style guide that’s used by the journal or publisher. If you have to decide yourself, you can look to frequently used style guides such as CMOS or New Hart’s Rules for guidance.


Otherwise, pick a style you prefer and apply it consistently throughout the text.

 

I usually prefer using no end punctuation, except for the last item, for which I use a period.

 

Numbered lists

Punctuating numbered lists is more straightforward than a bulleted list. Usually, each item on the list starts with a capital letter, even if the item isn’t a full sentence. However, you only use closing punctuation if the sentence is a full sentence.

 

This example is from CMOS:

 

Compose three sentences:

  1. To illustrate the use of commas in dates

  2. To distinguish the use of semicolons from the use of periods

  3. To illustrate the use of parentheses within dashes

 

As you can see, the items are sentence fragments, and thus don’t have end punctuation (but do begin with a capital letter).

 

Like with bulleted lists, it’s best to check your style guide or pick a style you prefer and apply it consistently.

 

A note on parallel items

When you’re using lists, it’s important to have parallel items in your list. This means that the items should make grammatical sense if you combine them with the introductory sentence. For instance:

 

When you write a list, you have to:

  • use the appropriate punctuation mark

  • applying the punctuation consistently

  • use lowercase with sentence fragments

  • capitalize letters when it’s a full sentence or a proper noun.

 

Note that the second item doesn’t make sense: When you write a list, you have to applying the punctuation consistently.

 

The right form is apply.

 

Note that each item also has a parallel grammatical structure: they all start with a verb. Check that your lists do this as well.


However, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to rephrase an item to make it match the grammatical structure of the other items. If rephrasing it makes it harder to understand, leave it.

 

Be consistent when punctuating your lists

I’ve tried to emphasize this point throughout the article, but figured I’d emphasize it some more.

 

Ultimately, there’s no one way to punctuate your lists. However, when you pick a style, it’s important that you carry this through throughout your entire text.

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