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Like People, Bullet Points Need an Introduction

Recently my daughter received a letter from a music school that interests her. Here is how the letter began:

We are delighted that you have expressed an interest in our program here at the University of XXXX School of Music.

1. Outstanding dedicated artist faculty.
2. Our exceptional University Symphony Orchestra, presenting a full season of concerts . . . .
3. Cutting-edge experiential curriculum . . . .
4. Commitment to blending innovation with tradition . . . .

The content of the bullet points was fine–exciting and varied. The problem was that the bullets had no introduction. What were the 10 items? Never was it stated.

Sure, my daughter could figure out that these were 10 strengths of the university's music program. But readers should not have to figure out what bullet points signify. Bullet points need a sentence of introduction.

For the letter to my daughter, the introduction to the bullets might have been:

Consider these 10 reasons to give our program a closer look: [or]

Our current XXXX students give these reasons for choosing our music program: [or]

Among the strengths of our program are:

Like people, bullet points need an introduction. Otherwise, they keep us wondering.

Lynn
Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

7 comments on “Like People, Bullet Points Need an Introduction”

  • Lynn,
    I agree with everything you have said and tell my students the same, but in the case you are demonstrating, I tell them that a complete sentence must come before a colon. For example, your last example should be something like “The strengths of our program are as follows.” Am I wrong about this?

    Deb Richey

  • Deb,
    Even we can represent with semi colon like as below.

    The strengths of our program are as follows:

    Am I Correct?

  • Hi, Deb. A colon should be preceded by a complete sentence in most cases.

    However, when a colon is used before a bulleted or numbered list–that is, a list that is set off visually–a complete sentence is not required. That is why my final example is indeed correct.

    Directly below is an example of a colon use that is incorrect.

    Among the strengths of our program are: the cutting-edge curriculum, outstanding faculty, and a blending of innovation and tradition. (INCORRECT)

    I hope the explanation and example are helpful.

    Lynn

  • Hello, Imran. I am not certain I understand your question. However, I can say that a semicolon is NOT the correct punctuation mark to introduce a list or an explanation. That is the job of a colon.

    Lynn

  • Lynn,
    I agree with you, but my students are more apt to do as you did in your incorrect example, so even if the list is set off, I tell them to use a complete sentence =) Thanks for your feedback!

    Deb

  • I received a Purchase Order from a new customer, and at the bottom of the document two bullet points are listed, also with no introduction. Now, the first says, “Do not duplicate”, which is certainly understandable, but the second is just the single word “Responsibility”.

    I thought of this blog post of yours right away when I saw this- not only could these points use an introduction, the second one is not even a full statement- responsibility for what??

    Maybe I should recommend your blog to this customer! 😀

  • Hi, LisaMarie. Responsibility–now that’s an interesting bullet point! I suspect that somehow something got deleted that would have made the point clear.

    If I were in your situation, I would be tempted to ask the customer what the point means. But I guess the customer’s order is more important than my understanding.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Lynn

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