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Getting to the point with bullets

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 2, 2011, page 26)

It seems natural to associate language with bullets. Shakespeare referred to “quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain” in Much Ado About Nothing round about 1600. “Poor is the power of the lead that becomes bullets compared to the power of the hot metal that becomes types,” said Danish critic Georg Brandes in 1900 of the power of print. “Bullets will be the death of me,” moaned an editing colleague of mine a few years ago.

As you might have guessed, my colleague was in despair over bullet points—or, more accurately, bulleted lists, or vertical lists as The Canadian Style calls them, since the listed 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 office has some advantages over the shady side of town, one being that in the workplace, bullets are usually our friend. Because bullets differentiate a list from the surrounding text, they attract the 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 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 not entirely tasteful acronym these principles suggest.)

Bullets are great for lists that are important or complex and therefore need highlighting. But like boldface, or any other device that’s meant to highlight, bulleted lists can be overused. Readers subjected to literary buckshot—page after page of bullets—will be confused by scattered ideas that never cohere. What’s more, some material doesn’t lend itself to bullets. Can you imagine a novel or other narrative that features bulleted lists? Not really (although a novel based on tweets, which would be a lot like endless bullet points, is no doubt just around the corner). And 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.

Styling bullets

Now we come to the source of all misery about bullet points: how (and whether) to punctuate them and how (and whether) to capitalize them.

I spent half of the last decade in Quebec. 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 section. We’re talking not one, not two, but a dozen or more brands and flavours of canned gravy, and that’s not getting into the envelopes of powdered mix. (Long live poutine, I guess.) Deciding on the right style for bullet points—how to punctuate them and capitalize them—is like being in the gravy aisle in Quebec. There are countless styles to choose from. The idea is to pick one that suits your material and your audience, then apply it consistently.

So which style do you choose? Here’s where we must face a sobering 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 really apply. Instead, texts like The Canadian Style offer guidelines for styling bulleted lists. Some of these guidelines 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 construction, 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 impact (brochures, posters, PowerPoint slides), benefits from the clean style of no punctuation. Material that’s dense, analytical or legal, or that’s 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


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 bullet

Partial sentences

Option 1: Caps/no caps, no punctuation after any bullets

Option 2: Caps/no caps, semicolons after all bullets except a period after the last

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 must be parallel, both in their wording (all beginning with the same type of word) and their structure (all being partial sentences, or all 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 creating bullet points, and no rules for styling 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.