When preparing bullet points and lists, you may be confused by the following:
- whether to put a colon at the end of the sentence introducing your list.
- whether to capitalise the first word of each bullet point.
- what punctuation mark to put at the end of each each bullet point.
- how to end your last bullet point.
Bernard C Lamb in his book The Queen’s English writes “Some people use no punctuation at the end of each item, or a full stop after the last item only, or semicolons after each item, or full stops after each item.” He also explains that although different writers have different preferences when applying punctuation at the end of each sentence, the key is to be consistent with what you use. The list above this paragraph is one example of good use (we’ll call this example 1).
The following two examples are equally correct:
Four of my favourite pastimes are
I went to the shops and bought
- a loaf of bread;
- a bag of apples;
- a box of cornflakes;
- a pint of milk.
You will notice that I don’t always put a colon after the sentence introducing the list; according to the site I have found below, it isn’t necessary to do this if the introducing sentence flows into the list of items – as in examples 2 and 3. In example 1, however, the introducing sentence doesn’t flow into the list so I have used a colon.
If you are looking for more specific and concise rules, I have found something on the Northern Ireland government site: http://acc.nics.gov.uk/styleandtone/publishing/lists.html. Their NICS webstyle guide helps with this subject, as well as the point mentioned above about breaking the flow of the sentence. They recommend avoiding introducing a list with the phrase ‘the following:’ as I have shown in example 1 (which is an exact example of how to break the flow).
Additional point: I have just read in The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal, that is is not recommended that you use bullet points in “the main body of an essay or report”. I’m assuming, however, that it would be okay to put your list in sentence form (see ‘note 5 – Rules about lists in a sentence’ for examples of how to do this).
My thoughts: I use bullet points regularly in emails, slides, blogs and other documents, but never really knew if I was punctuating correctly (although I believe that I am always consistent). Turns out from my research today that I wasn’t far wrong.
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Bernard C. Lamb The Queen’s English (2010), UK
Brandon Royal in The Litle Red Writing Book (2004), USA
Northern Ireland government website NICS.gov.uk: http://acc.nics.gov.uk/styleandtone/publishing/lists.html.