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Bullet List Grammar

Bullet lists are a powerful way to display a list of ideas or items. Based on the number of hits I receive on another of my websites, many webmasters are looking for help with grammar and punctuation for bullet lists.

The good news is that some of the grammar and punctuation rules we were taught in school for lists are not used anymore. I suspect this is simply a natural progression of how we display information and not a decline in our grammar skills.

Introducing a Bullet List

Let's start at the beginning. There are traditionally 3 main ways to introduce lists:

Ellipsis (...)
While the ellipsis was previously used to indicate missing words or phrases, in the web world it has also been used to indicate more information is coming.
Colon ( : )
This is perhaps the most commonly used punctuation to indicate the beginning of a bullet list. Traditional grammar usage is for the colon to indicate a list traditionally listed within a sentence; much the same function it serves as an introduction to a bullet list.
Em Dash
An em dash is the longer version of the hyphen. An em dash is preferred to a hyphen as the increased width provides a better visual break.

Two Common Mistakes

There are two common grammatical mistakes people make when introducing a bullet list:

They introduce a bulleted list with a comma.
Commas are used to separate items in a list or series of phrases presented within sentences and are therefore not appropriate for introducting a bulleted list.
They introduce a bulleted list with a semi-colon.
Semi-colons are usually used to provide a natural pause in a sentence and are therefore not appropriate to introduce a bullet or other list.

Grammar & Punctuation of List Items

There is actually at least one book on proper grammar and punctuation for creating bullet lists. The irony is that the examples within this book appear to contradict each other. Perhaps that's why there are so many folks looking for advice on punctuating their lists. The book recommends that when using bulleted lists to be consistant and use what looks good. Below are my suggestions based on my teachings from traditional English classes, years of writing technical manuals, and what I think just plain looks better.

Bullet Lists of Full Sentences & Paragraphs

When using full sentences or paragraphs as list items, ensure the grammar is correct as for any sentence and list each normally. For example:

  • This is the first sentence of my list.
  • This bullet has two sentences. Again, just make sure to use proper grammar with your list items.
  • This is just a third sentence to make the list look better.

If your bullet list items contain longer paragraphs, it may make the overall look of the page better if the right margin is also indented in relation to the main body text.

Single Words or Phrases as Bulleted Items

Ironically, what would seem to be the easiest list to punctuate is the one where the book contradicts itself and ultimately suggests using what you think looks better. Surprisingly when using single words and phrases as bulleted list items, grammar and punctuation aren't the issues; capitalization is. Here's what I do and when:

Single Words as Bulleted Items

I capitalize the first letter and have no other punctuation.

By using a bullet list, the author indicates the list items are worthy of special note and capitalization of the first letter looks cleaner and gives more importance to each item.

Phrases as Bulleted Items

If the phrase would not be considered a full sentence, it should not have any ending punctuation and the first letter should be capitalized.

Titles as Bulleted Items

If bullet list items are titles of things like books, magazines, websites, or occupational titles; use title case and only any punctuation needed by the elements of the list.

For example:

  • President of Operations
  • Mgmt. Consultant
  • Director of Marketing and Spec. Projects

Bullet List Placement

A well-known expert in typography told me that traditionally bullets appear just left of the left margin and the text should appear inline with the left margin. Surprised? I was.

After telling me, his knowing smirk told me he knew I had no intention of making my lists that way. Sorry, Richard, you were right in that assumption.

I indent my bullet lists on the left side. I believe a bullet list is a part of the sentence that introduced it and while each list item is important, each item is actually a phrase contained within that sentence. The indentation indicates that. I admit that I also indent for looks. Since most readers of websites only scan the pages, by indenting a bullet list the author effectively drives the reader's eye to the list items.

Whether writing for a website or for print materials make sure that you are consistent with your indentation. It makes the materials look neater and more professional. Don't be tempted to make one list on a page a little wider to get all the information on one line - you can't depend on screen and letter size anyway.

If the bullet list contains items that consistently span the width of the page or are several lines long, I often will indent the right side of the list as well. This is purely for looks. I have also found it to make reading the list items slightly easier.

The Last Words on Bullet List Grammer & Punctuation

Yes, I put the word grammer in a heading. I realize that grammer is not the correct spelling, but this site gets many visitors for whom English is not their first language and they often spell grammar with the e. To make this resource available and findable for them I have included this paragraph using the word grammer instead of grammar.

With sincere apologies to Richard, I have endeavored to explain how I punctuate and style my bullet lists. I have combined my personal style, years of writing experience with what I commonly see on the Internet and a book on bullet lists from my personal library.

Please let me know what you think.

For information on when a bullet list should be replaced with an ordered list, please visit the companion article HTML ordered lists.

Be sure to check out Help For Web Beginners other HTML & CSS Tutorials.

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