122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists


List parts given in different sentences must follow a proper introductory sentence and be highlighted with special words



Lists are an important part of academic and professional writing, detailing key ideas like aims, reasons, problems, solutions, conclusions and recommendations. Some lists can be given in just one sentence, but many need more because they are long and/or detailed.

Multi-sentence listing, like the single-sentence kind, has its own special grammar and vocabulary, which can prove troublesome for writers whose mother tongue is not English. This post is about that grammar and vocabulary, most of which falls into the category of so-called “signpost” words that help to show how texts are organized. Information about the language of single-sentence listing is in the Guinlist posts 54. Sentence Lists 1: Incidental,  55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message,  74. Sentence Lists 3: Bullet Points and 93. Good and Bad Lists.



Most multi-sentence lists have an introductory sentence (though see 167. Ways of Arguing 1). An introductory sentence will usually contain the name of a general class to which all of the list parts belong – what we might call the list name. For example, a general class name for the list walking, cycling, driving, taking a taxi, going by bus and travelling by train might be modes of transport and one for the list Mathematics, English, History, Science, Geography and Art might be school subjects.

Introductory sentences with a list name tend to take one of two common forms:

(a) There are six major modes of transport.

(b) Six major modes of transport can be identified.

Example (a) starts with There are, a very common way of signalling a subsequent list, and not at all informal (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences). Example (b), on the other hand, begins with the list name. These alternatives are the same as those that can introduce both single-sentence lists (see 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message), and groups of headings (see 178. How to Write a Heading). Note, though, that a following colon, which sentence lists need after such introductions, is not possible before multi-sentence lists – a full stop must be used instead.

Both of the above sentences, it will be noticed, also contain the number word six. There must always be such a word, either exact like six or vague like various, several, numerous, a number of etc. (see 55. Sentence Lists 2 and 96. Hedging 2: Lists and Predictions). If you wish to use an exact number word but are unsure about its truth (because you are unsure whether your list is all of the possibilities indicated by the list generalization), you can add a word like main, major or important.

Once the introductory sentence has been composed, there is a need in the next sentence to start the list with the help of a suitable signpost expression. There is a choice between adverb-like and adjective-like signpost expressions.


1. Adverb-Like Expressions for Starting a List

This kind of signpost expression includes firstly, in the first place and to begin with or, when the first list part is somehow more special than the others, above all and superlative adverbs like most commonly, most importantly and most obviously. All of these are adverbs of the “sentence” variety (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs). Be careful not to use first or in first place. To know why, see 20. Problem Connectors (#8) and 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5 (#4). 

A common error with adverbs before any part of a list is to follow them directly with the list part without any accompanying verb, like this:

(c) *There are six major modes of transport. Firstly, walking.

The underlined words here are an error because they are a sentence without a verb, something not normally allowed in written English. The easiest verb to use after expressions like firstly is there is. However, a problem with this in (c) is that the previous sentence already has there are, creating “bad” repetition (see 24. Good & Bad Repetition). To overcome this, one could either make the first sentence like (b), or use an adjective-like list starter in the second sentence instead of firstly.


2. Adjective-Like Expressions for Starting a list

The use of adjective-like list starters, of which the simplest is the first, may be illustrated as follows:

(d) There are six major modes of transport. The first (major mode of transport) is walking.

The use here is adjective-like because the first gives more information about a noun (mode in the sentence above). The reason for the brackets is that often the noun after adjectives like first is left out because it is obvious from the previous sentence (see 102. Adjectives with no Noun 2). Happily, first and other adjective-like signpost expressions rarely seem to cause the error of verbless sentences.

Unlike firstly, the first tends to imply that all of the possibilities indicated by the list generalization are about to be listed. If this implication needs to be avoided, a useful substitute for the first is is one is (see 1. Simple Example-Giving). Alternatively, if the first list part is somehow special, there is a choice of either the main one or a superlative adjective (without one). Many superlative adjectives are possible, including the best known, the commonest, the easiest, the most important, the most obvious, the most typical and the most usual.



After the first part of a multi-sentence list, each new part needs to have its own signpost expression. Once again there is a choice between adverb-like and adjective-like expressions. The former are again sentence adverbs, but also now “connectors” (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors). The latter can be thought of as connector synonyms (see 112. Synonyms of Connectors).

Very often the connectors will be number words like secondly, thirdly, fourthly etc. or, for the last part of the list, finally or lastly. One could also end with a longer expression like last of all or last but not least, but these ought only to be used in special circumstances. One expression that is not possible is at last, which means “after a long wait” (see 20. Problem Connectors). In using any of the expressions listed here, care is again needed to avoid verbless sentences.

Number connectors like those just mentioned are especially useful when you have used an exact number word like six in the opening sentence. Otherwise, when you are uncertain whether the list parts are all of the possibilities indicated by the list generalization, various other connectors are useful. The main ones seem to be moreover, furthermore, additionally and in addition. Before the last part of the list, one could use finally or lastly combined with it is necessary to mention.

Turning to adjective-like expressions with the later parts of a list, those normally used after an exact number word at the start are the second, the third, etc. At the end of such lists, there is a choice between the last, the final and the other. On the other hand, when there is vagueness about the full extent of the list, useful adjectives are (an)other, (an) additional and (a) final.


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