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The case of the disappearing colon: Death by bullets

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 2013)

I often feel like banging my head against the wall when I have to translate bulleted lists, also called vertical lists. As someone once said, "to really understand a subject, write about it." So, this article is intended to provide an overview of lists with an emphasis on the treatment of colons.

Vertical lists are rarely discussed comprehensively by style guides, whose advice differs, as grammar maven Frances Peck remarked in her 2011 article, "Getting to the point with bullets."1 I understand what Frances Peck meant about "death by bullets." Not only are there different styles in English, but French writers tend to be inconsistent with lists and heavy colon users. The English translation sometimes needs a "colonectomy."

Diana Hacker, who personally class-tests all of her handbooks, is probably best known for A Writer’s Reference, co-written with Nancy Sommers, which is now in its seventh edition. Hacker discusses common misuses of the colon in A Canadian Writer’s Reference, now in its fifth edition.2 She insists on not inserting a colon between a verb and its object or complement or between a preposition and its object. A colon must be preceded by a full independent clause.

  • The farmer grows: peas, corn and beans. "Grows:" is incorrect because the lead-in is a fragment.
  • The following vegetables are grown on the farm: peas, corn and beans. (correct)
  • The cultivated area consists of: three acres along the river and two acres across the street. "Consists of:" is incorrect because the colon separates the verb from its complement.

The Canadian Style also discusses colons in paragraph 7.28.3 The basic rule is not to place a colon at the end of a title or heading standing on a separate line. The example below shows a title on a separate line followed by phrases requiring no punctuation:

Irresistible Raw Treats for Healthy Dogs

  • All natural, ready to eat
  • A perfect reward for your pet

The list contains no periods because the points are phrases rather than complete sentences. The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) recommends that short items or phrases (sentence fragments) that form a list do not require any final punctuation (6.124). However, periods should be used for items in a list that are complete sentences. This reflects the trend in English punctuation toward a spare, clean style.

The lead-in sentence in the next example is a complete sentence, so a colon can be used.

Candidates must provide proof of the following:

  • a B.A. from a recognized university in accounting or a related field
  • a minimum of five years of experience
  • an accounting designation, such as a CA or CPA

Vertical lists punctuated as a sentence

Chicago states that it is preferable to introduce a vertical list with a complete grammatical sentence, followed by a colon, except for a "vertical list punctuated as a sentence" (6.125), where no colon is required.

Perky Pet Treats are highly recommended because they

  1. are crunchy and fresh;
  2. clean dogs’ teeth at the same time; and
  3. do not contain either gluten or soy.

The above example drops the colon to introduce the vertical list because the list itself forms a complete sentence. The punctuation and capitalization would be the same with bullets or letters instead of numbers. Chicago recommends semi-colons and a "penultimate and." However, this may result in a mixture of styles in your text if your other lists are different. Mignon Fogarty, who writes the popular Grammar Girl blog, books and podcasts, finds that semi-colons in a list are "cumbersome."4

Personally, if the document contains other lists, I prefer to rewrite a vertical list punctuated as a sentence to give it the same structure as the other lists to avoid using semi-colons in one case and no punctuation or periods in the other cases. Lower case was used above, but you can use upper case in all of the lists in the same document to avoid a mixture of styles, as in the following example.

Perky Pet Treats are highly recommended:

  1. They are crunchy and fresh.
  2. They clean dogs’ teeth at the same time.
  3. They do not contain either gluten or soy.

In the last example below, the items in the list contain full sentences starting with imperative verbs.

The following steps are recommended to prepare a list:

  1. Decide whether or not to capitalize.
  2. Choose between semicolons, periods and no punctuation.
  3. Review the use of an introductory colon.

The plot thickens

Whether or not to use a colon is a subject of debate among grammarians. Generally, if the lead-in sentence is a complete sentence, you should use a colon, but if it is a fragment, you should not.

Frances Peck covers consistency problems in her article. If you have even one complete sentence in your bullets, every point in the list should be followed by a period, unless a question mark is appropriate. If possible, rewrite your list to make all the points grammatically the same to ensure parallelism. For example, make all of your bullet points either phrases starting with gerunds (-ing), conjugated verbs, nouns or complete sentences. Pick either upper case or lower case for your list items throughout the document.

Remember that consistency and parallelism are hallmarks of good writing, so stick to one style and follow it. Even if the lists in the original French text are inconsistent, they can be improved in the English version.

Notes and references