Writers and editors searching for consistent, standardized advice about how to capitalize and punctuate bullet points will be sorely disappointed. Bullet points are not a natural product of language, such as pronoun-antecedent agreement. Instead, they are a feature of the document’s formatting, akin to chapter titles, running headers, and page numbers. As such, writers have far more discretion in the way bullet points are formatted, and while style guides can be useful, even those vary in the advice they give.
Bullet points are used to organize and present information in a way that is useful to the reader. They are recommended by plain language guidance as a helpful way of presenting information concisely. Therefore, the guiding principle in their use is to present information so that it is quickly and easily understood by the document’s intended audience.
Bullet points differ from numbered lists in that they imply either that each item in the list is equally important or that the items are presented in a random order. Whereas numbered lists suggest priority or a process. Writers should think critically about which they intend, since it is easy and tempting to “dump” information into a bullet point list when a numbered list might be more accurate or effective.
The items in a bullet list can appear in any format the writer chooses. They can be single words, phrases, clauses, or complete sentences. To be quickly and easily understood by the document’s intended audience, they should all be the same – do not mix words with phrases, phrases with clauses, etc. Here are examples of each:
Example A – Bullet point – Words:
This park is a great place for –
(from Conservation Writing Pro’s Course, Eight Weeks to Writing with Clarity)
Example B – Bullet point – Phrases:
A bulleted or numbered list:
- visually emphasizes information
- capsulizes a concept
- facilitates reading comprehension
(from Grammar Quizzes.com)
Example C – Bullet point – Clauses:
Each child was seated at a separate station and given
- an elephant, which all children could see but not touch in Experiment 1;
- a kangaroo, which half of the children could see but not touch and half of the children could both see and touch in Experiment 1; and
- a giraffe, which was new to all children in this experiment.
(Example from APA Style)
Example D – Bullet point – Complete sentences:
Here is what I recommend:
- Use a period (full stop) after every bullet point that is a sentence (as these bullets do).
- Use a period after every bullet point that completes the introductory stem.
- Use no punctuation after bullets that are not sentences and do not complete the stem.
- Use all sentences or all fragments, not a mixture.
(Example from Business Writing)
As you can see from these examples, capitalization and punctuation differ. These differences are based in part on the writer and in part on the style guide he or she is using. (NOTE: A writer’s style guide is determined by the content and publication venue. The University of Maryland library has a convenient and thorough list of style guides by subject matter. Department of Interior writers can download a checklist of style guides here). What follows are answers to a few common questions, applicable to writers in all disciplines where your style guide is silent.
How should I introduce a bullet list?
Bullet lists are commonly introduced with a complete sentence followed by a colon. Some style guides recommend the colon regardless whether the introduction is a complete sentence (see The Gregg Reference Manual and Gardner’s Modern American Usage.) Example A shows bullet points introduced with a dash. Example C shows bullet points introduced without any mark of punctuation, the style preferred by APA’s Publication Manual when the introductory language is not a complete sentence.
Should each bullet be capitalized?
Style guides differ in their recommendations. Gregg suggests a capital letter for ease of scanning. Gardner allows the writer to choose, regardless what grammatical form the bullet points take. Other style guides reserve capital letters for complete sentences only.
Given this difference in advice, unless writers are working with a specific style guide, they should remember the guiding principle of presenting information so that it is quickly and easily understood by the document’s intended audience. In general, capital letters can allow bullet points to be scanned quickly. But too many capital letters defeat the purpose. Compare Example A two different ways and determine which is more easily scanned by your reader in the context of your publication:
|This park is a great place for –
||This park is a great place for –
What mark of punctuation should follow the bullet points?
Again, style guides differ. Gardner permits each bullet point to end with a period, regardless whether they are themselves complete sentences or whether they act together with the introductory statement to form a complete sentence. Gregg allows phrases to end with a period so as to avoid what he considers the awkward and ungainly presentation of the semicolon and coordinating conjunction (see Example C). But he also permits short phrases to stand without capitalization or punctuation. Oxford does not require the period at the end of a bullet point even if the point is a complete sentence.
Writers working with a style guide that does not offer guidance (such as the GPO) should consider the guiding principle of ease of use. As one, admittedly subjective, example, consider Examples A and B. Given the use of single words in Example A, I would find closing punctuation such as commas or periods fussy and cluttered. However, the use of phrases in Example B leaves me longing for something at the end of the line to delineate the items.
In closing – bullet points are for the ease of the reader, not the ease of the writer. Use them to present information clearly and concisely. Do not use them to avoid the hard work of thinking through each item in your list. Introduce them so that their relevance to the document is clear. Set them off so that they are easy to find and scan. And if they are at all difficult to digest, consider another organizational strategy, such as subheads with developed paragraphs.