Punctuation in bullet points and numbered lists

If you’ve ever had *that* discussion with a colleague about how to use punctuation in bullet points or numbered lists – and I know you have, because you asked me to post about it – then you’ll know it’s a controversial topic.

Image source: Photo by Karen Su, Lonely Planet; meme from QuickMemes.

That’s why it’s spelled out in most of the major style guides. This post details the punctuation rules for the style guides I’ve written for various companies, based on AP Style (used by journalists), Macquarie style, Oxford style, and a few others.

Why care about whether your bullet points and numbered lists have punctuation, “and/or”s, and the like?

Because all of this affects readability, and y’all know, we live in the Golden Age of Skimreading. Readability is king.

1. Capital letters in bullet points

Always use a capital letter on the first word of each line.

2. Start with a colon and end with a full stop if the list is a sentence

If you’re using a lead-in sentence, so that the bullet points or numbered list could be read as a sentence if you want, always start the list with a colon, and end with a full stop.

You don’t need any other punctuation or “line endings” like “and” (see below).

Example:

Your automatic insurance may include several types of cover:

  • Death cover
  • Total and permanent disability cover
  • Income protection cover.

3. No full stop if not a sentence

Don’t use a full stop on the last line if the list couldn’t be read as a full sentence (judgement call).

Example:

You might be eligible for insurance

  • Death cover
  • Total and permanent disability cover
  • Income protection cover (no full stop here)

4. No punctuation or conjunctions on the end of a bullet point

Don’t use any other punctuation (semicolon; comma, or full stop .) or conjunctions (joining words like “and”, “or”, or the dreaded “and/or”) on any of the line in the bullets/numbered list.

Because these punctuation and conjunctions are already implied by the nature of a list.

The exception is if you are quoting legislation word-for-word.

Example of how to do it incorrectly:

This is wrong – don’t do this: Your automatic insurance may include several types of cover:

  • Death cover, and/or (X)
  • Total and permanent disability cover; and/or (X)
  • Income protection cover.

Example of doing it correctly:

You might be eligible for insurance

  • Death cover
  • Total and permanent disability cover
  • Income protection cover (no full stop here)

5. Don’t use full sentences in bullets/numbered lists

If you’re putting full sentences in each bullet point, please don’t.

That’s not the point of bullet points or numbered lists, which are designed to “chunk” information into bite-sized pieces, and make things more skimreadable.

However, if you must use full sentences (shudder) for some reason, then there should be a full stop at the end of each line.

Example:

Under specific pieces of superannuation legislation:

  • Non-concessional contributions will be limited to $1 billion per year and up to $4 million for a three-year period.
  • Additional tax is payable on excess contributions over the non-concessional cap.
  • Some self-employed people may be eligible to claim the Commonwealth Government super co-contribution.

6. Using footnote markers or end notes in bullet points

For the love of all that is good and holy, avoid using footnotes or end notes.

Fine print is evil for a few reasons.

First, it means you’re hiding something. As soon as your reader sees a footnote, they know you cannot be trusted – because you are having to provide a disclaimer to what you just said.

Secondly, using fine print to explain jargon or defined terms means you’ve written something that the average reader is not going to understand. Which means it’s not readable, and you need to rewrite.

With all of that said, if you must use a footnote, put it outside the punctuation or word where it is most relevant.

Example:

Members of Company X benefit from different types of education, including:

  • Public and workplace seminars and webinars
  • Financial advice*
  • Discounts to the gym.

* Only for eligible members, and only once per year.

(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you share or repost. Thanks!

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