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Bulleted lists: Capitalization and punctuation

©Judy Vorfeld

Before the introduction of word processing (via word processors and computers), most publications displayed lists in either outline form or numbered lists. Now we have bullets. This creates a new layer of confusion on how to use capitalization and punctuation in such lists. Following are some questions and answers to use as guidelines:

When is it better to use bullets than numbers?

Use numbered lists when you're working with instructions to be done in sequence, and the numbers suggest a hierarchy. The same applies when someone may refer to specific items by number. Numbered and unnumbered lists are more commonly used in scholarly publications. If numbers aren't essential, use bullets, especially in business documents.

When do I capitalize the first letter in a bulleted item?

In most cases, experts recommend that you start each bulleted item with a capital letter. We're so programmed to capitalize only proper nouns and the first word of a complete sentence that it almost seems wrong to capitalize single words and phrases. Do it anyway.

When do I use periods and when do I leave bulleted items without end punctuation?

RULE: Use periods after independent clauses, dependent clauses, or long phrases that are displayed on separate lines in a list. Example:

In this project, the equipment shall consist of:

  • Three horizontal centrifugal pumps with design temperature of 100 degrees F.
  • Three electric motors, in accordance with Appendices II and IIA.
  • Three steel base frames.

RULE: Use periods after short phrases that are essential to the grammatical completeness of the statement introducing the list. Example:

There are a number of tags used in HTML, including:

  • Image tags.
  • Background tags.
  • Paragraph tags.

RULE: It's not necessary to use periods after short phrases or single words in a list, if the introductory statement is grammatically complete (see below) or if the listed items are like those on an inventory sheet or a shopping list. Example:

The software in this price range offers many excellent features:

  • Windows 9x and up
  • Audio pronunciations
  • Rebate
  • Tutorial

RULE: When one item contains a complete sentence, punctuate all bulleted items as though they were complete sentences: capitalize the beginning words and use a period at the end of each item. Example:
You will not be accepted if you have been diagnosed with:

  • Arthritis.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Asthma or some allergies. Please list your allergies and give date of last flare-up.

RECOMMENDATION: If you're creating a long document full of bulleted items, you may choose to be consistent and end each item with a period.

RECOMMENDATION:
Never use the following format:

We strongly recommend that you

  • finish the project by Friday, January 23;
  • place everything you've turned in to date, plus this assignment, on a floppy disk; and
  • label all file pages (and the disk itself) with your designated code.

...HOWEVER: Chicago Manual of Style says you may use the following format for vertical lists (numbered or bulleted) punctuated as a sentence:

We strongly recommend that you

  • finish the project by Friday, January 23;
  • place everything you've turned in to date, plus this assignment, on a floppy disk;
  • label all file pages (and the disk itself) with your designated code.

If you write a lot of reports and documents with lists, you'll always do well if you follow the guidelines above, recognizing the need of the reader to grasp information quickly and easily.

I used The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition (Sabin), The Copyeditor's Handbook (Einsohn), and the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, (University of Chicago Press), to put these tips together.

References:
The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition (Sabin).
The Copyeditor's Handbook (Einsohn).

About the author
Judy Vorfeld's operating system is Windows and her primary software includes WordPerfect; Microsoft Word; Microsoft Publisher; Adobe Acrobat; PaintShopPro; and Macromedia HomeSite. Please visit her website: http://www.ossweb.com