Let's Make a List

by Cherie Tucker

Enumerated lists that follow colons have some rules you might like to know.  First, if you have a list, whether enumerated or in bullets, you must have at least two items.  Every 1. must have a 2.; every A. must have a B.; every bullet must have a companion bullet.  Next, the first word of every listed item must begin with a capital letter.  Also, all the listed items must be in parallel construction—either all complete sentences, similar fragments, or the same parts of speech.  (You want your readers to be able to scan what you have written easily without having to mentally correct it.)  For example, here’s what you just read in a list format:     

Enumerated lists must follow certain rules:

  1. The first word of each item must be capitalized.

  2. There must be at least two items in the list.

  3. The listed items must be in parallel construction.

These items don’t have to be in sentences.  Here’s another way.
Enumerated lists must:

  1. Have the first word capitalized.

  2. Contain at least two items.

  3. Be in parallel construction.

And yet another:
Enumerated lists must contain the following things:

  1. Initial capitals

  2. At least two items

  3. Parallel construction

Notice that the first two lists end with periods.  They do so because in the first example they are all sentences, and in the second, each item completes the interrupted sentence that introduces the list.  In the third example, the introduction is a complete sentence, ending with the “complete stop” colon.  The listed items are just short phrases, like a shopping list, and don’t require any punctuation.  Longer phrases or clauses in that construction, however, should end with periods, but no commas or semicolons.
People used to put either commas or semicolons at the end of each item and then use and before the last item, but it’s not done any more.  When you stack the items, you have eliminated the need for punctuation.  If you want punctuation, don’t use the list format.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.  GrammarWorks@msn.com 

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