Bullet Points and Numbered Lists

Bullet Points and Numbered Lists

Foreword

This post describes Bullet Points and Numbered Lists as used in this blog.

CONTENTS

Introduction

Bulleted Lists

Numbered Lists

Using Numbered Lists To Make A Program of Instructions

References

Introduction

In this blog I regularly use Bullet Points and Numbered Lists. I find them a very handy way to format instructions that I am conveying to readers who need to perform serial tasks, or to provide a list of items required to perform repairs. I apologise to readers who have found the formats I have used in these lists to date have not met their grammatical standards. I may revisit my past articles and edit them to improve their lists.

From time to time I have looked up rules on-line to determine how best to format Bullet Points and Numbered Lists. I understand the rules are not too rigid and have been tempted to make my own. I’d better not do that since I am no grammar authority. The main rule is to keep the same format throughout an article.

When I begin writing a list I think I know what type of list it is, but when I have finished it and edited my article several times the list may be re-written or moved to another place in the text and go from bulleted to numbered and end up strangely formatted.

Bulleted Lists

I have read that lists mostly follow a sentence or phrase terminated with a colon. Many of my lists fall into that category. The sentence or phrase describes what the list is about and the list may consist of options as follows.

You could use this fruit:

  • apples
  • pears
  • bananas
  • oranges
  • grapes
  • cherries
  • clementines.

It has an introductory sentence or phrase ending with a colon, each item begins with a lower case letter (because each listed item is not in itself a sentence). The last item terminates with a full stop (period) to show the list has ended. The whole thing is only a suggestion and implies that any number of items in the list could be included.

The same list could be written serially like this:

You could use this fruit: apples, pears, bananas, oranges, grapes, cherries, clementines.

In the serial form if I had ended with Cherries and clementines I would have created an AND list by implication. Alternatively I could have created an OR list with cherries or clementines. In a bulleted list these implications are performed by punctuation at the end of each item.

Here is the same list as above but with a different leading sentence.

Which of the following fruits would you like to take to eat on your journey?

  • apples,
  • pears,
  • bananas,
  • oranges,
  • grapes,
  • cherries,
  • clementines.

In this case the list is a logical OR list. (That means one or more of the items in the list can be chosen.) I have seen it suggested that logical OR lists have each item terminated in a full stop (period). Here the leading sentence cannot terminate in a colon because it is a question. So it terminates with a question mark. This is seen as the best place for the question mark. The alternative is to have a question mark at the end of each bulleted item. In this case the addressed person can choose one or more items from the list.

Here is the same list again with a slightly different question.

Which one of the following fruits would you like to take to eat on your journey?

  • apples,
  • pears,
  • bananas,
  • oranges,
  • grapes,
  • cherries,
  • clementines.

In this case the list itself is a logical OR list but in the context of the question it is an XOR (exclusive OR) list. The addressed person is asked to choose one or other of the listed items exclusively, but the exclusivity is not in the list it is in the leading question. I have not seen any reference to a form of punctuation for terminating the items in an exclusive OR list such that the suggestion of exclusivity can be omitted from the question. I suppose that’s because any number could be written into the question: e.g. Which three of the following fruits would you like to take to eat on your journey?

Here is the same list again with an instruction.

Please put the following items in the fruit bowl:

  • apples;
  • pears;
  • bananas;
  • oranges;
  • grapes;
  • cherries;
  • clementines.

This is a logical AND list. The addressed person is required to include all the items in the list.

Numbered Lists

Here are two examples of numbered OR lists.

One way to use a numbered list is when a specific number of entities are suggested, e.g.:

There are five routes to town from my village:

  1. public footpath
  2. bridleway
  3. side roads
  4. main road
  5. motorway.

or

You can take any of the five routes to town from my village:

  1. a public footpath over Goin Hill.
  2. a bridleway around the foot of Goin Hill.
  3. side roads through the village and then along a country lane.
  4. the A8591 main road to Chillington.
  5. the M99 motorway to junction 5.

In the first instance above the list is abbreviated so it does not consist of sentences and therefore I have not begun each item with a capital letter and I have only terminated the last item with a full stop (period).

In the second instance above I have lengthened the suggestion and turned the items into a description. Since these descriptions are just phrases I have not begun with a capital letter but I have terminated each with a full stop (period) since it may be considered an OR list.

Here is an example of a numbered AND list.

Numbered lists are a good way to provide instructions which need to be in an ordered serial format.

Take it apart by:

  1. removing the Soleplate Assembly;
  2. detaching both End Cap Assemblies;
  3. disengage both Brushbars from the Brushbar Motor Assembly.

Here each item is terminated with a semi-colon except for the last item which is terminated with a full stop. It is an AND list because all instructions must be performed and it is numbered because they have to be done in order.

Using Numbered Lists To Make A Program of Instructions

Once numbered, instructions can be referred to from other instructions. This is useful when a set of instructions has to loop back under certain circumstances or jump forward to miss out certain procedures, e.g.:

To check a light and replace a bulb:

  1. Switch the light on;
  2. If it doesn’t light go to 3, else go to 7;
  3. Switch the light off and remove the fuse to make the circuit safe;
  4. If the bulb has not already been replaced go to 5, else get help from an electrician.
  5. Replace the bulb;
  6. Replace the fuse and go to back to 1;
  7. The bulb lights.

In this list each instruction is a sentence so I have started them all with capital letters. I have used full stops (periods) at the end of two items (4 and 7) because the instructions can terminate with those items under certain conditions. This list is partly an OR list because there are two IF statements where a choice has to be made. So the two choices in each are separated by a comer. The other items in the list terminate with a semi-colon because those instructions which are read before reaching a full stop (period) must all be performed as in any AND list.

NOTE: I have carefully arranged that the last item in the list can end with a full stop (period). I could have missed out item 7 and included the statement at the end of item 2 like this, “If it doesn’t light go to 3 else the bulb lights.” Then item 6 would be the last item in the list, deserving a full stop (period) but it would not be the last instruction read so requiring it to terminate with a semi-colon. This is moving into the realms of, ‘Programming loops and how best to break out of them.’

A more efficient program for checking a light and replacing a bulb might be this:

  1. Switch the light on;
  2. If the bulb lights  then stop, else switch the light off and remove the fuse to make the circuit safe;
  3. If the bulb has already been replaced go to 5, else replace the bulb with a known good one;
  4. Replace the fuse and go back to 1;
  5. Get help from an electrician.

This only has one full stop (period) at the end of the last item

Advice suggests that list items should not have more than two sentences. After that they become paragraphs and numbered lists become numbered paragraphs. With instructions it’s often better to have short instructions in a long list than putting instructions together in one item. They can be more easily checked (i.e. ticked off) as they are completed. Sometimes I have commenced writing an instruction list and the items are simple phrases, then part way down the list I find myself writing a more complex item when I get to the nitty-gritty part of the instructions. I then have to consider if I am going to change to numbered paragraphs.

References:

  1. Oxford Dictionaries – Bullet Points
  2. Tabulation of Lists in RuleSpeak® – Using “The Following” Clause – by Ronald G. Ross

Author: Helpful Colin

I have a background in telecommunications and a fascination with all things scientific and technical – from physics to electronics, and computing to DIY.