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Improving your listing technique
Much encyclopedic and academic text comprises lists. The items in a list range from the very long, such as paragraphs and sections, to the very short, such as the words in a sentence (e.g., "They treat dogs, cats and parrots"). Here, we'll focus on lists of shorter items, where the list has a discernible rhythm and contains standardised signals—punctuation and new lines—to help the reader through. Controlling the strength of the boundaries between the items is critical when constructing a list. This is achieved by manipulating the punctuation and line-formatting to achieve an optimal balance between allowing your readers to easily comprehend the list and providing them with a smooth, uninterrupted flow of words.
Lists are binary: they typically have (i) a lead, which introduces (ii) the items. (Occasionally, the order is reversed so that the listed items come first; e.g., "Limes, sugar and water are the only ingredients".)
Here are the basic questions that you'll need to answer when you construct a list.
- Will it comprise a single sentence (Types 1–5 below) or multiple sentences (Types 6 and 7)?
- Will it be a "running" list within the paragraph (Types 1–3 and 6), or a "lined" list, in which each item occupies a new, bulletted or numbered line (Types 4, 5 and 7)?
- What kind of boundaries will you use between the items? (In other words, what combination of commas, semicolons, colons, full-stops, numbers and bullets will you use?)
First, we will review the manual of style, then show you some examples of the basic types of list, followed by brief advice on formatting. Then we deal, category by category, with the commonest problems in listing.
Don't use a list if a passage reads easily in running prose.
- Blank lines between items. Avoid.
- Numbers. Use them rather than bullets only if:
- you need to refer to the elements by number;
- the sequence of the items is critical; or
- the numbering has independent meaning, e.g., in a listing of musical tracks.
- Consistent grammar. Use the same grammatical form for all elements in a list; don't mix the use of sentences and sentence fragments as elements.
- When the elements are complete sentences, format them using sentence case with a final period.
- When the elements are sentence fragments, they are typically introduced by a lead fragment ending with a colon. When these elements are titles of works, they retain the original capitalization of the title; other elements are formatted consistently in either sentence case or lower case. End each element with a semicolon, and with a period instead for the last element. Alternatively (especially when the elements are short), no final punctuation is used at all.
We've prepared models and examples of the main types of list—single-sentence and multisentence lists, and within these categories, running and lined lists. This is not an exhaustive list, and the guidelines here arise at least partly from personal choice. For each type, we've used "LEAD" to stand for all of the words in the lead; this will run directly into a three-item list, in which the items are represented by A, B and C. Hit [Show] in the upper box to reveal the example and comments on it. Please widen your window if the display is distorted.
Single-sentence lists- Running lists
A running list is smoothly integrated into its paragraph, and will not be obvious at a glance. Occasionally, contributors to FACs are asked to change lined lists into running lists to provide greater flow and neater visual appearance. Running lists are almost ubiquitous, and we've all become skilled at reading them fluently—even when they're complex. Strictly speaking, the first two sentences in this paragraph are running lists, in which the lead–item boundaries fall after "list" and "provide", respectively. Let's revisit these two sentences, marking the lead–item boundary with / and colouring the items.
- A running list / is smoothly integrated into its paragraph, and will not be obvious at a glance. Occasionally, contributors to FACs are asked to change lined lists into running lists to provide / greater flow and neater visual appearance.
Here are some of the common types of running list.
|TYPE 1 (nothing + commas)|
|LEAD A, B and C|
|Macro-economics concerns the three policy goals of economic |
growth, price stability and full employment.
|TYPE 2 (colon + semicolons)|
|LEAD: A; B; and C.|
|Macro-economics concerns three policy goals: economic |
growth; price stability; and full employment.
|TYPE 3 (the addition of numbers to Models 1 or 2)|
|LEAD (1) A, (2) B, and (3) C.
LEAD: (1) A; (2) B; and (3) C.
|Macro-economics concerns the three policy goals of (1) economic |
growth, (2) price stability, and (3) full employment.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals: (1) economic
Single-sentence lists- Lined lists
Placing each item on a separate line provides even stronger boundaries, making the items visually distinct. This allows readers to digest the list easily, mentally "ticking off" each item line by line, and facilitates the re-reading and comparison of items. Lined lists allow readers to easily identify and focus on only the items that they need, which can be important in an organisation in which the same document is read by staff with very different roles and responsibilities. The white space that lined lists create can break up masses of grey paragraphs, which is more inviting to readers in many contexts. For all of these reasons, lined lists are much liked in corporate, government and administrative documents; although lined lists are less prevalent in academic (and encyclopedic) text, their use has been increasing.
Lined lists come at a cost: their very strong boundaries work against the flow of the text. This is why reviewers in the FAC room tend to object unless this formatting is used judiciously, especially at the top of an article where flow is of the essence to engage the readers. There are exceptions to this, but try to keep lined lists few in number and short, or your article will be seen as "listy" and thus more appropriate as a Featured List than a Featured Article.
|TYPE 4 (colon plus semicolons, lined)|
|Macro-economics concerns three policy goals:
|TYPE 5 (colon plus semicolons, lined and numbered)|
|Macro-economics concerns three policy goals:|
(1) economic growth;
These are appropriate when the items are long and complex, and/or contain more than one sentence or clause. FA Criteria 2 and 3 used to be cast as single sentences, and were changed to a multi-sentence format, because the items (now Criteria 1 and 2) were thought to be easier to read as stand-alone sentences. Multi-sentence lists can be running or lined; in this subsection, we treat both types.
|TYPE 6 (running and numbered)|
|LEAD. First, A. Second, B. Third, C.|
|Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of many economists and policy-makers for decades. The first is economic growth, a key platform for moving people out of poverty. The second is price stability, or low levels of inflation; this is widely regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy economy. The third is full employment, which has the potential to reduce social problems.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of many economists and policy-makers for decades. (1) Economic growth, a key platform for moving people out of poverty. (2) Price stability, in other words, low levels of inflation; this is widely regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy economy. (3) Full employment, which has the potential to reduce social problems.
|TYPE 7 (lined and bulletted or numbered)|
|Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of many economists and policy-makers for decades.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of many economists and policy-makers for decades.
Alternative systems of numbering lists
- Arabic numerals: (1) (2) (3)
- Roman numerals, lower case: (i) (ii) (iii)
- Roman letters, lower case: (a) (b) (c)—use if there are numerals within the items that may clash with the numbering system.
- Roman letters, upper case: (A) (B) (C)—less common.
- Any of the above, enclosed in square brackets—possible, but uncommon.
- Any of the above without parentheses or square brackets, followed by significantly indented text.
- English words plus comma: first(ly), second(ly), third(ly),—possible. There are variations on the spelt-out numbering system, among them:
- First,... Second,... Third,...;
- Firstly,... Secondly,... Thirdly,...
- Firstly,... Second,... Third,....
- Closing parenthesis alone: 1) 2) 3)—this is not as neat as two parentheses, and slightly harder to read.
- Number/letter plus dot and space: 1. 2. 3.—this can cause tension with sentence boundaries.
- The bolding, italicising and other highlighting of numbers/letters—this can look messy.
- Substantial indents for lined lists; we recommend no indent or only a small indent for the bullets or numbers—visually, lined lists are already very distinct.
Subset terms frame the items of your list as part of a larger set of items. These terms need to be used with care. Common subset terms are:
- includes and including
- , such as (preferred to like in formal writing)
- , particularly and , in particular
- , especially
- , for example, or e.g.,
- among which are and among them ...
- most importantly,
- ..., etc. (avoid in encyclopedic text—it means "and the rest", and suggests that you can't be bothered to tell us)
Many writers get into a habit of automatically using a subset term to introduce lists—especially the term "includes". This signals to the reader that the list is incomplete—that there are other items aside from those in the list. If the list is complete (which is usually the case), use terms such as comprises or consists of instead. Here's an example.
- Natural numbers include positive integers and non-negative integers.
No, that indicates that natural numbers can be other things as well; they can't. This is correct:
- Natural numbers comprise positive and non-negative integers.
or you could indicate the relationship of the items to the set and to each other more precisely:
- Natural numbers are either positive or non-negative integers.
If your list is incomplete, take care not to double up on subset terms. Here, there's one subset term before and one after the items:
- The most important biographies are on Graham Greene, Patrick White and Ernest Hemingway, among others.
"The most important" indicates that you're drawing on a larger set; telling us twice will weaken the text. This is better:
- The most important biographies are on Graham Greene, Patrick White and Ernest Hemingway.
Vagueness in the lead
Rather than using a vague term, such as several or various, specify the number of items in the lead. For example, instead of:
- The company's land-mines are produced in a variety of colours—grey, dark-green, light-green and tan—for optimal camouflage.
- The company's land-mines are produced in four colours—grey, dark-green, light-green and tan—for optimal camouflage.
In any case, it's usually unnecessary to tell us how many items we're about to read.
Check the formatting where running lists are long and/or complex, especially where you've removed or pasted in items. Remember the basic formulas, which hold no matter how long or complex the items:
- A and B.
- A, B and C.
- A, B, C and D.
- The 1973 oil crisis had significantly increased the cost of living, domestic industry was weakening from a lack of cost-competitiveness.
This is wrong (A, B); the writer has removed the C item without checking the residual formatting. Here's the original sentence.
- The 1973 oil crisis had significantly increased the cost of living, domestic industry was weakening from a lack of cost-competitiveness, and government revenues were waning.
These can turn a hedgehog sentence into something more manageable. Full repetitions such as this:
- Their new technology produced all of the required sounds, including two-voice, three-voice and eventually four-voice music samples.
can be reduced to:
- Their new technology produced all of the required sounds, including two-, three- and eventually four-voice music samples.
Relocate clause-initial repetitions to the lead
Where every item of a single-sentence list starts the same way, relocate the repeated text up to the lead. For example:
To help strengthen the US democratic process:
- you can lobby for the tighter regulation of political donations;
- you can lobby for the creation of a uniform national voting process for Congressional representatives and the President; and
- you can vote for representatives who pledge their support for the establishment of a national, independent body to determine the boundaries of congressional districts.
would be easier to read as:
To help strengthen the US democratic process, you can:
- lobby for the tighter regulation of political donations;
- lobby for the creation of a uniform, national voting process for Congressional representatives and the President; and
- vote for representatives who pledge their support for the establishment of a national, independent body to determine the boundaries of congressional districts.
"And" and "or"
There's a tendency among some writers to use "or" between the second-last and last items in a list, where they mean "and". A, B or C means EITHER A OR B OR C. "And" is the default for lists in English: A, B and C. Using "and" doesn't necessarily mean that all items in a list apply all of the time; it can still mean that only one item applies on any one occasion. For example:
- Alternative terms for herbal tea that avoid the misleading word "tea" are tisane or herbal infusion.
- Alternative terms for herbal tea that avoid the misleading word "tea" are tisane and herbal infusion.
English may be idiosyncratic in this respect, because we've noticed that many non-native speakers, particularly those who come from East Asian languages, over-prefer "or" in lists.
Check that the semantic and conceptual boundaries between the items are distinct and logical. The most common category problem arises when one item is a subset of another. Here's an example:
- He was responsible for the contents and comic strip in Megatokyo.
At first glance, the reader is justified in asking: "Isn't the comic strip part of the contents?" It may be that the writer is trying to distinguish between the graphics and the linguistic text in the bubbles; it's hard to know.
- Manhattan has many famous landmarks, tourist attractions, museums and universities.
Museums are tourist attractions, so already the boundaries are unclear. The writer resolved the problem here by replacing "tourist attractions" with a more focused item.
Another problem arises when the categories are too different, usually conceptually:
- The Mayans widely believed that tobacco has magical powers, and used it in divinations and talismans.
Divination is the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means. A talisman is an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck. It would have been better to treat these two uses in separate clauses or even sentences.
Consistent grammar and formatting
Keep the grammar and formatting consistent. The following list mixes two common grammatical constructions.
- Preparing a FAC involves (i) copy-editing the text many times, (ii) the checking of all points of view to ensure that they are neutral, (iii) justifying the copyright of the images, and (iv) the organisation of the material into logical sections.
Two of the four items start with a nominalisation (the checking of and the organisation of) and two start with straight "-ing" verbs (copy-editing and justifying). Either way is fine, but you need to choose one and stick to it throughout the list. Here, we've chosen to nominalise the verb at the start of each item, which gives it a more formal, steady-state feel, rather than the active, dynamic, "doing" sense conveyed by the straight "-ing" verbs:
- Preparing a FAC involves (i) the copy-editing of the text many times, (ii) the checking of all points of view to ensure that they are neutral, (iii) the justification of the copyright of the images, and (iv) the organisation of the material into logical sections.
Now your readers don't have to rejig their mental idea of the grammar to read each new item: much easier.
Here's an example of an elaborate list from a FAC—a list of lists, in fact—that is littered with parentheses and quote marks and is illogically formatted and inconsistent. During the FAC process, this example was significantly improved; see how many areas for improvement you can identify, then hit Show to see the hints.
Hit [Show] in the top box to view hints. Hit [Show] in the bottom box to view the improved version.
|The vector consists of several components:
|The vector consists of four components:
This is slightly shorter for the same information, and is much easier to read because each item is consistent in language and formatting.
Any questions or would you like to take the test?