74. Sentence Lists 3: Bullet Points

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Bullet points make a list more prominent but must be introduced with the right language

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DEFINITION AND PROBLEMS OF BULLET POINTS

Bullet points are listed items written separately from each other and highlighted with a common attention-catching symbol, like this:

(a) Bullet points may be shown with:

  • circles
  • squares
  • ticks
  • arrows

The word “bullet” refers to the symbol used; it can be small black circles as in (a) or other shapes, like those listed. Numbers or letters may be used too. I wish to consider here when lists should be given with bullets/numbers instead of in ordinary sentences or paragraphs (the topics of 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message and 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists), and also to clarify some confusions about the language that bullet points can be introduced with. The way bullet points themselves should be written is considered in the post 93. Good and Bad Lists.

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WHEN TO USE BULLET & NUMBERED POINTS

The place where bullet points are not conventionally used is academic essays. Their avoidance there does not seem to have much logical justification but, like the avoidance of informal language (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”), is so widely expected that breaking the convention risks losing assessment marks. In other kinds of academic writing, however, bullet points are common: note-making positively requires them (to save time), and longer tracts, such as dissertations and theses, are as likely as not to have them. Outside academic writing, two notably common contexts for bullets and numbers are professional reports and CVs.

The aim of separately highlighting listed items is, of course, to make them more noticeable, interesting and memorable. However, there is a need to appreciate that short lists in particular are not always suited to this type of presentation: sometimes presenting them in such an elaborate way can hinder their basic message. Judgement hence needs to be exercised to make the right choice (judgement is important quite often in academic writing – see, for example, the posts 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons on the choice between semi-colons and full stops, 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing on when to quote rather than paraphrase, and 59. Paragraph Length). 

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WAYS TO INTRODUCE BULLET/NUMBERED POINTS

Bullet points normally come after a colon. This happens even if the words before the colon lack the grammatical structure of a complete sentence – as in (a) above (for the normal need of words before a colon to have such a structure, see the posts 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons and 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message). In addition to the colon, special bullet-introducing words are common.

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1. Bullet-Introducing Words Before a Complete List

A list is complete when all of the possibilities are included in it (see 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions). The following expressions commonly introduce a complete list.

I. AS FOLLOWS is a fixed phrase that always needs -s even though lists are by nature a plural concept. It is generally placed at the end of its sentence. The wording before may follow one of three different patterns. Firstly, it may be like a complete sentence:

(b) Learning a language has numerous requirements, as follows: …

In most such cases, there will be a number expression (either exact like five or vague like numerous) and a comma before as follows. It is possible to drop as follows altogether, or use a synonym instead like namely.

Secondly, as follows can be used directly after may (or can) and a passive verb, like this:

(c) Bullet points may be shown as follows: …

No comma is possible here, and as follows cannot be dropped. Other likely verbs include listed, enumerated, given, presented, set out, classified and categorised. Sometimes they are in the active voice: We may show …

The third use of as follows is directly after the verb BE. It is not compulsory – BE can just as easily have a colon straight after – and no comma is possible:

(d) The requirements for learning a language are (as follows):

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II. THE FOLLOWING can be used either like an adjective, describing an accompanying noun, or by itself like a noun (see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”). It can go at either the start or end of a sentence:

(e) The following reasons for child trafficking have been identified: …

(f) The following are the reasons for child trafficking: … .

(g) Child trafficking has the following reasons: … .

(h) The reasons for child trafficking are (the following): … .

As (h) shows, the following can be dropped when it is directly before the colon. It is likely to be in this position either when the main verb is are or the word just before it is a preposition. When the main verb is are, as follows is also possible – see (d) above. The use after a preposition can be illustrated by sentence (a) above, where the following could be added after the preposition with.

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III. BELOW does not always mean the same as the other two expressions. At the end of a sentence it refers not to immediately-following data (bullets or otherwise), but to data written a little later. In this respect, it resembles its opposite above (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1, #4):

(i) The reasons for child trafficking are given below. (= NOT IMMEDIATELY)

At the beginning of a sentence, however, below can introduce a list. It may be an adverb or an adjective. As an adverb, it will be the first word:

(j) Below are (given) the reasons for child trafficking: … .

As an adjective, below must follow the noun it describes (The reasons below …). It is a common error to use below before its noun like above (*the below reasons …).

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2. Bullet-Introducing Words Before an Incomplete List

Incomplete lists (which are usually but not always examples – see 96. Hedging 2) are most easily introduced with some alongside one or other of the three expressions shown above:

(k) Some of the ways in which bullet points may be shown are (as follows): …

(l) The following are some of the requirements for learning a language: …

(m) Below are some of the reasons for child trafficking: …

An alternative is to use example-showing expressions like for example, such as and including (see 1. Simple Example-Giving) instead of as follows, the following and below. First, however, the sentence before the bullet points must be made to end with a noun or noun-like expression that shows what is being listed, like requirements in this illustration:

(n) Learning a language has numerous requirements, such as: …

Compare this with (b) above, where the list is a complete one. It is a common error to mix up the uses of such as and as follows in sentences like this.

One other useful way to introduce an incomplete list is to use INCLUDE as the main verb. This is possible in sentences like (d), (h) and (n). Note, though, that with its use all other example-showing language should be avoided in order not to have unnecessary repetition (see 24. Good & Bad Repetition): in (n) such as would need to be either removed or replaced by namely

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