Style Corner: List Punctuation

A message I try to hammer home to my students is the need for consistency in business writing.

Not ‘foolish consistency… the hobgoblin of little minds’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson had it, but sensible, pragmatic consistency which avoids annoying or disengaging your reader to the point where they ‘swipe left’ on your content.

This applies to layout as much as – or more than – any other aspect of business writing.

One area where writers are often guilty of layout inconsistency is the punctuation of lists; across different lists in the same piece, or sometimes even within a single list.

It’s unnecessary, messy and unprofessional.

There are four completely acceptable ways of punctuating lists. You don’t have to be small-minded about using the same format each time, for each and every list. But you do need to use one or the other (not a combination) within any single list.

1. Full stops throughout:

2. Semicolons, with full stop at the end:

3. None, except full stop at the end:

4. None throughout:

Which you choose depends partly on the length of the longest item in your list. Schemes 1. and 2. work better for longer items. If any of your items is a full sentence with subject and verb, using 1. or 2. is strongly advisable. For lists of shorter items 3. and 4. are quite OK.

Personally I favour 2. because it works regardless of item length, which means I can use it all the time and not have to bother remembering which scheme to use when. This approach also reinforces consistency.

But I emphasise that flawless consistency across different lists is not required. Flawless consistency within a single list is.

While we are at it, let’s mention three other aspects of list consistency which can infuriate even the least stickler-like reader.

First, capitalisation (or not) of the first character in each item. Do it or don’t, but be flawlessly consistent within a single list.

Second, indent size. Be flawlessly consistent within a single list.

Third, bullet shape and size. Be flawlessly consistent within a single list.

You get the picture. I am not a stickler but I am about this.