How to punctuate list stories

Now that everyone is writing list stories with bullet points, you had better know which punctuation mark(s) they require.

We see bulleted lists everywhere—and for good reason. In the age of distraction, in which people crave more information but read less, bulleted lists help readers skim and scan.

But how do you punctuate and capitalize them?

Here are some general guidelines taken from the Chicago Manual of Style and the American Medical Association Manual of Style.

1. When full sentences are used in a list, the first word should be capitalized and appropriate end punctuation should be used. For example:

The various arguments for and against the use of the serial comma are listed below.

• The AMA Manual of Style and the Chicago Manual of Style advocate for the use of the serial comma to avoid ambiguity.
• Other style guides—most prevalent, the AP Stylebook—shun the serial comma.
• Arguments for omitting the comma are that it’s unnecessary in simple sentences, and that leaving it out often does not change the meaning of the sentence.

2. If you use bulleted lists within a sentence, capitalize and punctuate the list just as you would any other sentence. For example:

The following phrases can easily be shortened into one word:

• during the period,
• at this point in time,
• in regard to, and
• until such a time as.

The exception to this rule: Do not use end punctuation if the list consists of one word or very short phrases. For example:

My favorite words coined from “The Simpsons” include:

• craptacular
• embiggen
• cromulent
• car hole

3. If a bulleted list completes a sentence and consists of phrases with internal punctuation, semicolons should be used between the items and a period should follow the final item. For example:

You might be a word nerd if:

• you can quote from Eats, Shoots and Leaves;
• seeing 1990’s and 30’s drives you to drink;
• hypens are your least favorite punctuation mark; and
• no one will play Words with Friends with you.

Another tip: Make bullet points consistent in structure. All bullet points should be fragments, full sentences, or questions.

Remember: Bulleted lists are a great way to convey complex information, but be careful—you don’t want your article, blog post, or press release to turn into a PowerPoint presentation.

Laura Hale Brockway is medical writer and editor and author of the blog Impertinent Remarks.

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