Everyone writes lists: to-do lists, grocery lists, New Year's resolutions, even wish lists to Santa. But do you know how to punctuate lists? If you're scribbling a grocery list, obviously you don't need to punctuate. But if you do, you earn extra credit points!
However, what if you're including a list in a business document? Lists are effective because they're easier to read than paragraphs. The following rules will help you properly punctuate a vertical list:
Need a colon? (I mean the punctuation mark!) Yes, if the introductory statement is a complete sentence. (The statement that introduces this list uses a colon because it's a complete sentence.) A colon isn't used if the intro ends with the verb to be (is, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) or a preposition (to, with, etc.). In these instances, you don't use any punctuation, even though it looks like something's missing.
Need bullets or numbers? Use numbers if you need a specific order. Use bullets if your list doesn't need to be in a particular order, although you may sort the items by importance, alphabetically, or by categories. If you need to reference items during a discussion, use letters instead of bullets.
Use capitals? Yes. Capitalize the first letter of the first word of each line. Word and PowerPoint will do that for you automatically.
Use a period at the end of each line? Use a period only if the item is a complete sentence. Some people place commas or semicolons at the end of each line plus the word "and" at the end of the second to the last item. That's okay if you want a more formal format, but it's not necessary in business writing.
Is your list balanced? Be consistent; for example, start each point with a verb. You may also start each item with a question, with a command, or with a summary statement. Some people start each item with You should. Even though the writing is balanced, the words You should are unnecessary; don't use them. Bulleted items on resumes need to be balanced, too; use action verbs rather than Responsible for or Able to.
Headings highlight and summarize the information in a list that has more than one or two sentences for each point. By summarizing each point with bold text at the beginning (as I've done above), the reader can scan the material and then read the items that only pertain to him or her. For example, if HR distributes a memo about benefits, a part-time employee could skip the information about vacations or other benefits that don't apply to him or her.
Use these same guidelines for your PowerPoint slide lists. Even better, forget the list; just use a title and an image on the slide!
Lists may be formatted with bullets, numbers, or letters within sentences, too. This method saves space and visually highlights each point. Simple lists with three or four items work well in a sentence. Use commas at the end of each item, and don't capitalize the first letter of the word. However, the same rules for balanced writing and colon usage to introduce the list do apply.