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How to style vertical lists

January 1, 2019 By Adrienne Montgomerie ACES News

“Write the beginning of the sentence, then place a colon, and put the vertical list below that. Right?”

Editors lose their minds when they hear writers simplify list punctuation in this way. It’s so much more nuanced than that. But sometimes, the writer is right about this. It’s a matter of style. (Note that several styles are used in this article by way of example.)

Defining a vertical list

Quite simply, a vertical list is laid out vertically, rather than in line in running prose. The list can be bulleted or ordered with either numbers or letters (or a nested combination of all three).

Uses of a vertical list

Vertical lists have many uses:

A numbered list can cue the reader to the order of steps, sections that follows, or the order of importance of a series of items. For example, this article covers

  1. defining a vertical list,
  2. uses of a vertical list,
  3. punctuating vertical lists, and
  4. going beyond punctuation.

Punctuating vertical lists

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) lays out nuanced rules for punctuating vertical lists in six sections within Chapter 6. In the Publication Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), check section 3.04, Seriation. But for the simplest rule, look to the Canadian Style (CS), which brings the introductory punctuation rule down to this: “The colon is generally used to introduce vertical lists.” [CS7.66] (Following a complex set of style rules has led some documents’ readers and reviewers to call the list style inconsistent.)

When you’re navigating new style, these are a few considerations you’ll want to take in for punctuating lists:

There is no style that doubles up leading punctuation—meaning that 1.) is not done.

Going beyond punctuation

One request that all style guides make when it comes to lists is that all items within a list use a parallel style. That is, the items are all set in the same tense, and use the same grammatical structure.


This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, October 23, 2017.

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