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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Need a list? Here are some to-dos (and some to-don'ts) for putting them in your documents

It's that time of year for creating shopping lists. But if you're also thinking of putting a wish list--or other type of list--in a document you're writing, this blog post provides some suggestions. They're from the entry in  Garbl's Editorial Style Manual on formatting lists of items within paragraphs and when aligned vertically with bullets or numbers.

In developing these guidelines, I've considered and consolidated the sometimes conflicting advice of various style manuals. I'm curious if these guidelines are clear to you and cover most of your needs. 

lists Lists are useful in texts to save space and improve readability. To use this technique most effectively, follow these guidelines:
  • Put words and ideas common to all items in the lead-in, introductory sentence.
  • List only comparable items; choose list items that form a logical group.
  • Present only one idea in each item.
  • Keep the list items grammatically parallel.
  • Use only words, phrases or short sentences.
  • Provide adequate transitions before and after lists.
  • Do not overuse lists or make them too long.
  • Use consistent punctuation and capitalization in list items.
When listing information in paragraph form, use commas to separate items in the list if the items are brief and have little or no internal punctuation. If the items are complex, separate them with semicolons. To stress sequence, order or chronology of list items, begin each list item with a number or letter enclosed in parentheses or followed by a period.

Use a colon to introduce a list only if a full sentence or clause comes before it. That introductory statement should end with the following: or as follows: or like this: or other similar phrases. The first paragraph of this lists item is also an example of when a colon should be used. Or simply use an introductory sentence like this one (followed by a colon): Here are some examples. 

Do not use a colon after phrases like The problems include ... or Members of the task force are .... The previous sentence also shows when a colon is not needed.

Here are two examples:
  • We think he should (1) increase his administrative skills, (2) get more education and (3) increase his production.
  • You should expect your vendor to do the following: train you in the care of your system; offer regular maintenance, with parts replacement when necessary; and respond quickly to service requests.
When listing information in a column (a vertical list), follow these guidelines:
  • End the introduction to the list with a colon if it is a complete sentence, as described and shown above for a list within a paragraph.
  • Capitalize the first word in each item if one or more of the items are complete sentences. Preferably, all or none of the items should be complete sentences.
  • Don't end list items with a semicolon. And don't use periods or other ending punctuation on items in the list unless one or more of the items are complete sentences.
  • Put a period after the final item in all lists.
Avoid ending the introductory phrase with a verb. If you can't avoid that, you should:
  • end the introductory phrase with a colon (as shown above).
  • treat each item in the list as the end of sentence.
  • begin each item with a lowercase letter.
  • end each item with a period.
In that list format, don't put a conjunction like and or or after the second-to-last item.

Here are some guidelines for using bullets, numbers or other punctuation marks in a vertical list:
  • Use bullets before each item in the list when rank or sequence is not important.
  • Avoid using an asterisk (*) or dash (--) to stand for bullets; most word processing and graphic design programs create bullets easily.
  • If using numbers to introduce items in a vertical list, don't enclose the numbers in parentheses but follow each with a period and a space.
Here are some guidelines for indenting a list:
  • Indent each item in the list if one or more of them develop a complete thought or contain more than one sentence.
  • If an item extends beyond one line, align the beginning of each line with the first word of the item after the number or bullet.
Here are some more examples:

The team is studying three alternatives:
  • expanding the existing plant
  • building a new facility
  • improving all facilities.
Here's the procedure for typing a three-column table:
  1. Clear tab stops.
  2. Remove margin stops.
  3. Find the precise center of the page.
    Set a tab stop at center.
The vendor for your system should:
  • train you in the care of your system.
  • offer regular maintenance, with parts replacement when necessary.
  • respond quickly to service requests.

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