93. Good and Bad Lists



The parts of a sentence-based list must each have the same grammar and follow on naturally from the list’s introduction



When a list is given in a single sentence, every one of its parts must have the same grammatical form – they must be all nouns or all verbs or all preposition phrases – and they must also combine grammatically with the surrounding words. These characteristics of a “good” list are not as easy to achieve as they seem: errors in the wording of lists are surprisingly common in professional writing, where list-giving is very frequent.

This post offers advice on how to word sentence-based lists so that they meet both the internal and the external grammatical demands. Two other problems in listing are addressed elsewhere within this blog. The wording around sentence-based lists is considered in the posts 54. Sentence Lists 1: Incidental,  55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message and 74. Sentence Lists 3: Bullet Points, while the problems of paragraph-length lists are the topic of 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists. Also relevant are the punctuation posts 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons and 50. Right and Wrong Comma Places.



If the first item in a sentence-based list is a noun or noun phrase, then each of the other items must be one too. Similarly, a list starting with a verb must continue with verbs. A list lacking this kind of grammatical consistency might look like this:

(a) *Foreign language learning requires motivation and study regularly.

The problem with this list, of course, is that the second item (underlined) is not a noun like the first (motivation). It is instead a verb (study) with accompanying adverb (regularly). The required noun is study – in this case spelt the same as the verb, but with an adjective (regular) placed before it instead of the adverb after.

Lists are not always made up of nouns; verbs, adjectives and even complete statements are common as well. Consider this inconsistent list:

(b) *There are various harmful effects of deforestation: rainfall diminishes, soil is eroded, and flooding.

The list here is essentially one of verbs (cf diminishes in the first item). Since verbs need a subject, the list also has nouns that perform this function (e.g. rainfall). The inconsistency is in the last item (flooding). Although it is a verb, it is not being used like a verb: it is in the “gerund” form and is hence more suitable for a list of nouns than one of verbs (see 70. Gerunds). It can remain like a noun yet be fitted properly into the list by being made the subject of an added verb like occurs.

One place where list items commonly have the form of full statements is the “work experience” section of CVs. Consider this inconsistent example

(c) *2010-12:  Taught elementary English to adult immigrants.

        2012-13:  Social events organiser for a language school.

Most real CVs would also give the names of the employers, perhaps in brackets before the full stops, but I have left those out here for the sake of simplicity. Both of these listed experiences have an acceptable grammatical form. The problem is that this is different each time: a sentence first, and then a noun phrase.

The sentence is based around the verb taught. Its subject is an understood I – left out in accordance with CV convention because it is obvious. The second item in the list has no verb at all, so is not a sentence. Its central word is organiser, a noun. The whole item can be made to match the first one by changing organiser into the verb organised and placing it at the start.



The grammar of the start of a list, which determines the grammar of the rest of the list, is primarily fixed by the wording before it. This wording and the start of the list must together make a possible sentence. Consider the following wrongly-constructed list sentence:

(d) *The reasons for controlling car use include noisy, polluting and endanger wildlife habitats.

The underlined part, which is the words before the list combined with the start of the list, do not make a correct-sounding sentence. The problem is that the last word before the list is a verb (include) of the kind that needs an object noun or pronoun after it (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors), yet the beginning of the list (noisy) is an adjective instead.

The easiest way to correct this error is to change noisy into its related noun (their) noise. The second list item (polluting) is also an adjective – correct if noisy were correct, but here needing to become the noun pollution. The third list item (the verb endanger …) is doubly wrong: it does not match the word class of the items before it, and it is still not a noun. A correct alternative is danger to … .

Lists introduced by a colon allow slightly more flexibility in their grammar. The different parts can nearly always be in sentence form, but can often be nouns instead. Consider again the list in sentence (b) above. We have already seen that the problem with it can be rectified by adding occurs at the end, making all of the list items into possible sentences. Another way to rectify the problem is to make all of the items nouns, like this:

(e) There are various harmful effects of deforestation: diminishing rainfall, soil erosion and flooding.

An additional decision to make concerning the grammar of the first list item is where to end the introduction. Often you have to think about the rest of the list in order to make this decision. Consider the following:

(f) Foreign language learning involves the need to practise regularly.

Suppose the second part of a list here was costs a surprising amount of money. Since this begins with a verb (costs), the easiest place to begin the list is also at a verb, in this case involves. However, if the second part of the list needed to say something like should use a dictionary, then the best place to begin will be after to, like this:

(g) Foreign language learning involves the need to PRACTISE regularly and USE a dictionary.

Here the words involves the need to have all been moved from the list to the words before it, leaving each part of the list to begin with the second half of a to verb. The reason why these words are moved is that they now apply to all of the list (need means the same as should, which naturally is not now present in the second part of the list). Avoiding repetition within the list in this way is an important consideration.

Finally, readers might like to consider how to improve the following clumsy sentence:

(h) ?Working outside the home can reduce women’s domestic boredom and they learn new skills.

This lists two benefits of women working outside the home. The first benefit begins with the verb can reduce, but the second begins with the pronoun they. The pronoun is necessary because without it the first verb’s subject (working outside the home) would nonsensically also be understood as the subject of the second verb (learn). The problem is that the pronoun, in giving different grammar to the second benefit, stops it looking like the second part of a list, so that it is not clearly enough linked to the cause working outside the home.

One way to give the two benefits the same form is to exchange the second verb for one that can have the same subject as the first, such as TEACH. The sentence would then end … and teaches them (or teach them if can needs to be understood again). This kind of synonym-manipulation is a major feature of writing, and is further illustrated within this blog in the posts 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs,  46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You” and 80. How to Paraphrase.


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