Punctuating bullet lists

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Lucy Gregory

 
It’s important to be consistent throughout your list, but you should also be consistent throughout your document as a whole. If possible, pick one type of list and stick to it. Otherwise you could confuse or distract your reader.
 

1. The list is one complete sentence

For a list that forms a complete sentence (like this one), use:

• a lower-case letter to start each bullet

• no punctuation between each bullet

• a full stop after the final bullet.

To make the list clearer, you can insert a comma followed by and or or after the penultimate bullet.
 
If you’re writing a formal document and/or your list items are long and complex, you might prefer to punctuate the list more completely by using:

• a lower-case letter to start each bullet;

• a comma or semicolon after each bullet;

and or or before the final bullet; and

• a full stop after the final bullet.

This format is most commonly used in legal documents.
 

2. Each bullet is one or more complete sentence

Whether you’re writing an informal or formal document, if each bullet comprises one complete sentence, the list should look like this:

• Start each bullet with a capital letter.

• End each bullet with a full stop.

 
If each list item is long or complex or comprises two or more sentences, bullets or numbering might not be the clearest format; try bold headings instead.

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3. The list comprises simple items

For a list of simple items, start each bullet with a capital letter and don’t punctuate.
 

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Introductory wording and using a colon

Generally, you should only use a colon when the wording before the colon forms a complete sentence on its own.

Correct
I asked Jane to bring three items to the meeting: the agenda, the team’s latest report and biscuits.

Wrong
I asked Jane to bring: the agenda, the team’s latest report and biscuits.

However, there’s more flexibility with a bullet list – as you can see from the lists above. Just remember never to introduce a list with a semicolon. This is always wrong.

For more information, read our blog How to use colons.
 

Final points

1. Make sure your bullets work with your introductory statement.
 
The final bullet here doesn’t make sense with the opening words.
 

Our company is known for:

• excellent service

• high-quality goods

• we don’t cut corners


 
2. Phrase each bullet in the same way.
 
The final bullet in this example makes sense with the opening words, but it doesn’t flow with the other two bullets. We need to replace believing with believe so all the bullets start with the same type of word.
 

The key to success is:

• work hard

• think big

• believing in yourself