Q&A: Understanding bullet lists

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's time to bite the bullet point…

Q: Hey, I have a question about bullets.
A: So it’s a “loaded question” then?
Q: Oh hardy ha ha.
A: What about them?
Q: Well everything about bullet lists really. I seem to see different versions everywhere. Is there one rule to rule them all?
A: Actually, no. It’s more about understanding the leader.
Q: I lost track of who the leader was years ago.
A: No, we mean the sentence or phrase that comes directly before the list. The first thing to check is if the “leader” is complete or half-finished.
Q: To quote Justin Bieber: what do you mean?
A: Often a leader to a bullet list will be a complete sentence, and other times a phrase. A phrase leader must end in a colon.
Q: Just like our digestive system! #highfive #anatomy
A: Um, okay. Meanwhile, a sentence leader is a complete sentence which can end in either a full stop or a colon – that’s a style thing.
Q: Okay.
A: So let’s start with a sentence leader.
Q: Example?
A: There are three main fossil energy sources.

  • Coal
  • Natural gas
  • Oil.

Q: So after a leader sentence each bullet begins with a capital letter?
A: Yes.
Q: But you only placed a full-stop on the last bullet – why is that?
A: Bullets should only end in a full stop if they’re actual complete sentences themselves, or are the final bullet. In this case, “Coal” and “Natural gas” don’t qualify for a full stop, but “Oil” does because it’s the last bullet. Oh, and by the way, “full-stop” doesn’t need a hyphen.
Q: To quote Justin Bieber: sorry.
A: Would you like to see an example with a leader sentence and bullets that are also whole sentences?
Q: Yes please.
A: Before you handle the hazardous waste, you must take the following precautions:

  • Make sure your safety goggles are firmly in place.
  • Make sure you have no exposed skin.
  • Clear the area so there is no one else within 200 metres of the waste.
  • Make sure there is emergency safety equipment within reach.

Q: This grammar business sure is dangerous!
A: True. And note that example’s leader could have ended in a full stop instead – it’s a style thing.
Q: What’s next?
A: Phrase leaders (incomplete sentences) are more common. The leader provides the first part of the sentence and the bullets finish it.
Q: Example?
A: In order to achieve your goals you should:

  • write them down and review them each day
  • share them with a coach or friend who you can be accountable to
  • make sure they are realistic
  • take action on each of them every day.

Q: Wow, forget the grammar lesson, that’s just super advice…
A: You’re welcome – go and smash that “to-do” list! Because a phrase leader isn’t a complete sentence, it has each bullet finish its thought.
Q: Can the bullets start with capitals here?
A: Yes they can. In fact, Word and Google Docs love converting bullets to a first capital. However, remember that only bullets that are full sentences or the final bullet should ever end in a full stop.
Q: Any other options?
A: Yes. The formality of placing semicolons at the end of each bullet is popular – like forming a giant, well punctuated list. You often see it in legal or more stuffy settings, with the penultimate bullet ending in “; and”.
Q: Hey, can you come up with a legal and stuffy example of a semicolon list?
A: All parties hereinabove deem it so that according to article 87 subclause (c) of the law that witnesseth betwixt and between aforementioned impediments and shall hitherto and thusly, accordingly collect monies pursuant to, notwithstanding inter alia and including but not limited to:

  • big fluffy wigs;
  • loud bang bang stick things;
  • yes that’s right, they’re called gavels; and
  • wrinkle-free 100% polyester barrister robes.

Q: Gosh, that WAS stuffy.
A: You’re welcome. And none of it made sense.
Q: Okay, so to quote Bieber one last time: where are U now?
A: Consistency is where we are, and it’s where ANYONE using a bullet list should be. As you can see, there is no ONE way to write a bullet list, but it’s important to be consistent. Colon vs full stop. Caps vs non-caps. Semicolon vs nothing at all. Choose and stick with it (or find out the company’s or publication’s style if relevant.)
Q: And a final tip?
A: Keep an eye on how you construct your list. If your leader is “When in Rome:” and your dot points are “you should this” and “you should that”, you may wish to reword the leader as “When in Rome, you should:” to avoid repetition.
Q: Good point!
A: Good DOT point…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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