Saturday, January 21, 2012

How to punctuate bullet points

Bullet points are a great rhetorical technique because not only do they communicate a lot of information in a concise fashion but they also work as a visual device indicating the relationship between ideas.  Experts tell us that particularly when it comes to screen reading, bullet points are essential for  connecting with busy readers who tend to scan the screen for information rather than read left-to-right, top-to-bottom like they would a printed page (here and here).  

So check out this post from the Business Writing blog on how to punctuate bullet points discussing when to use periods, semicolons and when to omit punctuation altogether.

Punctuating Bullet Points

In business writing courses, the most common question about punctuation involves how to punctuate bullet points. It's important, since these days we write as many bullet points as paragraphs.

Let me tell you how I punctuate them, and then I will touch on other ways recommended by prestigious style manuals.

Here is what I recommend:

  • Use a period (full stop) after every bullet point that is a sentence (as these bullets do).
  • Use a period after every bullet point that completes the introductory stem.
  • Use no punctuation after bullets that are not sentences and do not complete the stem.
  • Use all sentences or all fragments, not a mixture.

Directly below is an example of bullet points that complete the introductory stem. Below that example is a version that does not need periods.

I like living in Seattle because of its:

  • Access to culture, natural beauty, and work opportunities.
  • Moderate climate--not too hot or too cold.
  • Liberal politics and social attitudes.

Here are the things I like about living in Seattle:

  • Access to culture, natural beauty, and work opportunities
  • Moderate climate--not too hot or too cold
  • Liberal politics and social attitudes

There is an exception to putting periods after bullet points that complete the stem sentence: If they are one word or a short phrase that feels like an inventory or shopping list, do not use end punctuation. Below is an example:

I like living in Seattle because of its:

  • Culture
  • Natural beauty
  • Work opportunities
  • Moderate climate
  • Liberal politics
  • Social openness

I follow The Gregg Reference Manual's rules on punctuating bullets. I like the approach because it is crisp and clear. 

Garner's Modern American Usage, a reference manual I respect and use, also inserts periods at the end of bullet points--if they begin with a capital letter. However, Garner notes:

"If you begin each item with a lowercase letter, put a semicolon at the end of each item, use and after the next-to-last item, and put a period after the last item."

The Chicago Manual of Style has pages of rules and examples of bullet points, but it agrees with the Garner style quoted above, calling the style "vertical lists punctuated as a sentence." Here is my example of that style:

It is my responsibility to [Garner uses a colon here but Chicago does not]

  • provide participant prework questions for your roster of attendees;
  • review participants' responses and writing samples; and
  • customize the workshop to match individuals’ and the group’s needs.

To me, the style above is too fussy for business writing. It doesn't look crisp or energetic.

You can read more here, or even better click on this link for Ms. Gaertner-Johnston's article on "Best Practices for Bullet Points.


| Permalink


Post a comment