Punctuating Bullet Points

In business writing courses, the most common question about punctuation involves how to punctuate bullet points. It's important, since these days we write as many bullet points as paragraphs.

Let me tell you how I punctuate them, and then I will touch on other ways recommended by prestigious style manuals.

Here is what I recommend:

  • Use a period (full stop) after every bullet point that is a sentence (as these bullets do).
  • Use a period after every bullet point that completes the introductory stem.
  • Use no punctuation after bullets that are not sentences and do not complete the stem.
  • Use all sentences or all fragments, not a mixture.

Directly below is an example of bullet points that complete the introductory stem. Below that example is a version that does not need periods.

I like living in Seattle because of its:

  • Access to culture, natural beauty, and work opportunities.
  • Moderate climate–not too hot or too cold.
  • Liberal politics and social attitudes.

Here are the things I like about living in Seattle:

  • Access to culture, natural beauty, and work opportunities
  • Moderate climate–not too hot or too cold
  • Liberal politics and social attitudes

There is an exception to putting periods after bullet points that complete the stem sentence: If they are one word or a short phrase that feels like an inventory or shopping list, do not use end punctuation. Below is an example:

I like living in Seattle because of its:

  • Culture
  • Natural beauty
  • Work opportunities
  • Moderate climate
  • Liberal politics
  • Social openness

I generally follow The Gregg Reference Manual's rules on punctuating bullets. However, Gregg also uses periods after bullets that are dependent clauses and long phrases.

Garner's Modern American Usage, a reference manual I respect and use, also inserts periods at the end of bullet points–if they begin with a capital letter. However, Garner notes:

"If you begin each item with a lowercase letter, put a semicolon at the end of each item, use and after the next-to-last item, and put a period after the last item."

The Chicago Manual of Style has pages of rules and examples of bullet points, but it agrees with the Garner style quoted above, calling the style "vertical lists punctuated as a sentence." Here is my example of that style:

It is my responsibility to [Garner uses a colon here but Chicago does not]

  • provide participant prework questions for your roster of attendees;
  • review participants' responses and writing samples; and
  • customize the workshop to match individuals’ and the group’s needs.

To me, the style above is too fussy for business writing. It doesn't look crisp or energetic.

For more about those efficient chunks of text we use so often, read my post "Best Practices for Bullet Points."

If you would enjoy commenting on bullet point style, please do.

Lynn
Syntax Training

25 COMMENTS

  1. These rules make sense, but what about that colon in the Seattle example? Shouldn’t you leave it out after the word “its”?

    You haven’t used a complete sentence, so I would say you can’t use a colon.

    Also, how can you use a capital letter in that same situation if the points are a continuation of that sentence? (Access, Moderate, Liberal))

  2. Hi, David. We have several correct ways to handle bullet points. It is acceptable to use the colon in the example you mentioned, because the points are set off in a list. I follow “The Gregg Reference Manual” rules on colons.

    As for the capitalization question, “The Chicago Manual of Style” agrees with you.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Lynn

  3. Hi, Michael. Thank you for referring us to your blog post with its excellent examples.

    I was surprised to see the full stop only at the end of the final bullet when the items are fragments. That is a unique style. As you noted, writers will need to consider that style choice when writing to Australians.

    Thanks for enlightening us.

    Lynn

  4. I’m reviewing a business manual with lots of bulleted lists; my concern is the use of “are” before the colon in a lead-in sentence to the list. For example:
    Important items to remember are:

    I read somewhere (I can’t recall now) that this is incorrect; it doesn’t look right to me either. Please clarify. Thanks…

  5. Hello, Sofia. Your example is correct if it introduces a bulleted list.

    It would be wrong if the list came directly after the lead-in sentence. For example, this rendering would be wrong:

    Important items to remember are: tape, scissors, and markers.

    My example is wrong because of the colon. A colon should not follow verbs such as “is,” “are,” and “includes” when the item or items after the verb are part of the sentence rather than set off in a vertical list.

    I hope my explanation helps you.

    Lynn

  6. Thanks, Lynn. What about using the lead-in sentence to list several points that are full sentences? What is the rule of thumb? Instead of listing stand-alone items following “are:”, you’d be listing full sentences. For example:
    The important reminders are:
    -Don’t forget to pick up your itinerary.
    -Don’t forget your identication badge.
    etc.

    Thanks,
    Sofia

  7. Hi, Sofia. The “are” with the colon is correct. However, your example would be more concise and more focused on positive action this way:

    Reminders:
    –Pick up your itinerary.
    –Wear your identification badge.

    Lynn

  8. Hello! Thanks for this article! What about continuing a sentence past the list? Is that allowed or not encouraged?

  9. Thank you for posting this. I’m glad to see there’s some freedom in punctuating lists, as strict punctuation can sometimes negatively affect the reading flow. I take the liberty of using a colon after the word “include” in a bulleted list because the readers expect it. What are your thoughts on this? Should I be smarter than the readers?

  10. Hello, Linda. If I understand your question correctly, my answer is no. It would not make sense to have a stem sentence (one that introduces a list) continue after the list.

    I am sorry I missed your message earlier.

    Lynn

  11. What’s with this new style of putting ‘and’ on the second last bullet point, such as (obviously with a bullet point at the start of each point):
    Key skills

    Have experience within the catering industry;
    Relationship management and interpersonal skills;
    Project management;
    Presentation skills;
    Problem solving, and decision making; and
    PC literate, particularly with Excel and Word.

  12. Hi, Simon. Vertical lists punctuated as a sentence are not new. I consider them an old-fashioned approach. Nevertheless, certain respected style manuals recommend them as an option. (I mention the manuals in the post above.)

    Lynn

  13. What approach would you feel comfortable with if the content were PowerPoint slides? We have a dispute today as to whether the requirement for periods extends to ppt slides. Any thoughts?

  14. This is exactly the information I was looking for tonight. How nice (and unexpected) for a Google search to produce something useful helpful right off the bat.

    Thanks for you post,

    Carole Tee

  15. Hi Lynn,

    I was curious what your thoughts were on utilizing the ampersand versus writing out “and” in a bullet point.

    Should bullet points follow the grammatical structure of the preceding content?

    Thank you,
    Vero T.

Comments are closed.