Writing by Peter Hilton

Use grammatical bullet lists

Technical writers love bullet lists and so can you 2023-06-27 #writing

Volodymyr Hryshchenko

Technical writers love bullet lists, and using them consistently and correctly. However, presentation slides too often bring shame to bullet lists. Learn to use bullet lists correctly, and avoid bullet list shame.

Ungrammatical lists

Presentation-slide culture typically doesn’t promote correct grammar, as a writing technique. Instead, firing sloppy bullets at your slides leads to lists like the following.

The list only hints at underlying ideas that the author didn’t write down.

😀 Pros: minimal writing effort.

😡 Cons: sloppy, and difficult to read.

👍🏻 Use for: presentations, when the slides are really just speaker notes.

Sentence lists

Improve on ungrammatical lists by adding structure. Sentences structure writing, even in bullet lists.

This makes the list easier to read, even if the list items remain unrelated to each other.

😀 Pros: better readability.

😡 Cons: looks weird if you try to put two sentences in one bullet.

👍🏻 Use for: most purposes, with single sentences.

Punctuated sentence lists

Adding punctuation lets you vary the number of sentences, without relying on the bullets for grammatical structure.

The following guidelines improve readability.

Ideally, the list itemises members of some set, such as guidelines. A lead-in sentence can make this explicit, as in the above example.

😀 Pros: works with multiple sentences per bullet.

😡 Cons: the full stops annoy some people.

👍🏻 Use for: all purposes.

Single sentence lists

Listing items, rather than statements, doesn’t require a sentence for each list item. Instead, transform an inline list into a bullet list whose lead-in phrase starts the sentence, with a colon to introduce the list.

Good bullet lists use:

You can omit the comma after each list item, but include the final full stop. If you change the lead-in phrase to a heading, you get a barely acceptable ungrammatical list:

Good bullet list properties

In this case, you might as well capitalise each bullet.

😀 Pros: most concise than single sentence lists.

😡 Cons: the final full stop may surprise people.

👍🏻 Use for: replacing inline lists in technical writing, to break up long paragraphs.

Grammatical lists

Bullet lists don’t excuse ungrammatical writing, even on presentation slides. In general, use bullet lists for basic text layout, and punctuation for grammatical structure. This lets you change the layout, so you can reformat paragraphs with or without bullets, without breaking the text.

If you must use unpunctuated sentence lists, please at least keep list items consistent within a single list. And if you don’t find the above options sufficiently highbrow, you could always add semi-colons.

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