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Getting to the Point with Bullets

   

There’s a natural association between language and bullets. Around 1600, in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare referred to "quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain." In 1900 Danish critic Georg Brandes used bullet imagery to extol the power of print: "Poor is the power of the lead that becomes bullets compared to the power of the hot metal that becomes types." A while back an editing colleague raised the subject, saying: "Bullets will be the death of me."

As you might have guessed, my colleague was in despair over bullet points—or more precisely bulleted lists, or vertical lists, as some guides call them because the items can be preceded by things other than bullets: numbers, letters, dashes, smiley faces (if you’re under 16) and the like.

Bullets: friend or foe?

The workplace has some advantages over the bad side of town, one being that in the office, bullets are usually our friend. Because bullets differentiate a list from the surrounding text, they attract the reader's eye to that list. And because they dole out ideas line by line, they make processing those ideas much easier.

Bulleted lists are as much about design as they are about language. In fact, they follow all four principles outlined in The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. (Not that Robin Williams, the king of comedy. This Robin Williams is the queen, because she is a woman, of page design.) In Williams’ opinion, an effective design embodies the following four principles:

  • Contrast: Differentiated elements on a page draw the reader’s attention.
  • Repetition: Repeated visual elements give a sense of organization and unity.
  • Alignment: Related elements should line up on the page in some deliberate way.
  • Proximity: Related elements should be grouped together into one visual unit.

(Williams apologizes for the somewhat tasteless acronym that these principles spell out.)

Bullets are great for lists that are important or complex and need highlighting. But like boldface, or any other device that’s meant to highlight, bulleted lists can be overused.

Readers subjected to page after page of bullets—think of it as literary buckshot—will be confused by a bunch of scattered ideas that never cohere. What’s more, some material doesn’t lend itself to bullets. Can you imagine a novel or other sustained narrative featuring bulleted lists? Not really (though there are a few novels out there based on tweets; reading them must feel like skipping through endless bullet points).

Finally, think very, very hard before using sub-bullets. Then go out for a latte and think about it some more. The nested levels of information created by secondary bullets make for difficult reading and almost impossible scanning. Avoid sub-bullets wherever possible.

Styling bullets

I lived in the province of Quebec from 2000 to 2005. On my first visit to the local grocery store, I found myself in a section I had never seen anywhere else in Canada, had never even imagined: the gravy aisle. We’re talking not one, not two, but dozens of brands and flavours of canned gravy. And that’s not counting the envelopes of powdered mix. (Long live poutine, I guess.) Deciding on the right style for bullet points—how to punctuate and capitalize them—is like buying gravy in Quebec. The options are staggering. The idea is to settle on a style that suits your material and your audience, then apply it consistently.

So which style do you choose? Here’s where we encounter an unsettling fact: there are no rules for styling bulleted lists. Because a bulleted list is a graphic aid as much as a sentence, regular language rules don’t apply. Instead, texts like The Canadian Style (2nd ed., 1997) offer guidelines for styling bulleted lists, some of which strike some writers (this one, for instance) as needlessly complicated.

To keep bullets simple and consistent, I take a dual approach to styling them, based on whether the items in the list are complete sentences or partial sentences.

Complete sentences

A sentence is a beautiful thing, so why mess with it? I treat bulleted sentences like . . . sentences: capitalize the first word, end with a period.

  • Bulleted lists are tricky for three reasons:
    • It’s important to use them without overusing them.
    • There are no hard-and-fast rules for styling them.
    • The items in the list need to be parallel.

Partial sentences

When the bulleted items are not complete sentences, I gauge the material and the audience, then decide on either no punctuation or full punctuation. Material that’s meant to be reader-friendly or scannable, or that has a strong visual dimension (brochures, posters, PowerPoint slides), benefits from the clean style of no punctuation. Material that’s dense or primarily text-oriented is a good candidate for full punctuation.

As for capitalizing, since there’s no rule, I think about how the list will look in relation to the other text around it. Usually (but not always), with minimal punctuation I capitalize, and with full punctuation I don’t.

  • Bulleted lists are tricky for three reasons:
    • Possibility of overuse
    • Absence of hard-and-fast style rules
    • Requirement for parallelism

OR

 

  • Bulleted lists are tricky for three reasons:
    • possibility of overuse;
    • absence of hard-and-fast style rules; and (the and is optional)
    • requirement for parallelism.

Bullet style: a modest proposal

Complete sentences

Cap first word, period after every bulleted item

Partial sentences

Option 1: Caps/no caps, no punctuation after any bulleted item
Option 2: Caps/no caps, semicolons after all bulleted items except a period after the last one

Balancing bullets

I’m sometimes asked in workshops, "What’s the right way to punctuate a bulleted list when some items are partial sentences and some are complete?" The answer: There is no right way. The items in a bulleted list have to be parallel, both in their wording (all beginning with the same type of word) and their structure (all being partial sentences or all being complete, but not a mixture of the two).

To balance a teetering list, do whatever is more feasible: either change all the partial sentences to complete ones or vice versa. Consider this unruly example:

  • The candidate for the EEE (Eminent English Editor) position must be able to do the following:
    • Analyze documents to determine the level of editing needed
    • Revise documents to make them clear, consistent and logical
    • Correct errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, style and syntax
    • Communicate effectively orally and in writing. The ideal candidate will be able to speak and write in English and French.
    • Interpersonal skills

Clearly, the last two bullets are out of synch. Turning the second-last bullet into a partial sentence, and beginning the last one with a verb, should do the trick:

  • Communicate effectively orally and in writing, ideally in English and French (or the ideally phrase could be set in parentheses)
  • Demonstrate interpersonal skills (or Deal well with others or other wording)

The fact that there are few rules for when to create bullet points, and no rules for how to style them, can be frustrating (witness my colleague’s "death by bullets" pronouncement). But if you take the absence of rules as permission to be creative, it can instead be liberating. Use bullets when they’re helpful, style them consistently and keep them parallel, and the calibre of your document is bound to improve.