Bullet points are wonderful. They can help with concision, getting points across, and the organization of your text. However, poorly punctuated and formatted bullet point lists can have the opposite effect.
Punctuating bullet points correctly is something that often comes up in workplaces, academia, and beyond, and there’s a lot of conflicting information out there that has caused confusion.
So, in this blog post, we’re telling you everything you need to know, including what bullet points are, the basic rules of formatting them, how to punctuate them, mistakes to avoid, and tips for consistency and clarity.
What Are Bullet Points and How Are They Used?
Bullet points are used to format a list, with each list item being preceded by a bullet point (•). Here’s an example:
Things to do before the baby comes:
● I need to paint the nursery.
● John needs to assemble the cot.
● I need to buy and fit a car seat.
● We need to pick a name.
● I’ll want to read some baby books.
Bullet points can be used to structure any list and are usually used to break up long blocks of text, highlight key points, or summarize text.
How to Punctuate Bullet Points
The first thing to do is check whether your style guide has anything to say about punctuating bullet points. If it does, then follow its instructions.
If no guidance has been provided, here is a commonly used and logical method of punctuating bullet points. The important thing is consistency; once you have settled on an approach, stick to it!
Capitalize the first letter of the first word of each bullet point, putting the remainder in sentence case (i.e., as if you were writing a normal sentence).
Next, decide whether to use punctuation at the end of each bullet point item.
Do use punctuation at the end:
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If your bullet point list is made up of full sentences.
If your list item is phrased as a question.
Here, the punctuation could be a period (.), a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!). Whichever you choose will depend on your item and what you’re trying to convey.
Apart from the last bullet, don’tusepunctuation at the end:
If your list
Is made of
Short sentence fragments
Note that it is common to still capitalize the first word in the bullet (although style guides may vary).
Using these rules, we could rephrase the bullet point list mentioned above to avoid using punctuation:
Things to do before the baby comes:
● Paint the nursery
● Assemble the cot
● Buy and fit a car seat
● Pick a name
● Read the baby books.
Common Issues to Avoid When Punctuating Bullet Points
If you can, avoid using full sentences and sentence fragments interchangeably, as it can make your lists challenging to read and looks messy on the page. If you do need to use a mixture, common practice is to treat the punctuation as if each bullet is a full sentence (i.e., to include punctuation at the end).
Consider how you want to punctuate sub-bullets, as this can be a bit of a minefield. The most straightforward way is to follow the approach given above (although some guides may recommend that you end sub-bullets with semi-colons and “and,”, as in a list). You can introduce the sub bullet with a colon.
Tips For Consistency
As mentioned above, consistency is crucial. Erratic formatting and punctuation can look like an error, even if the inconsistency is technically correct in isolation.
For example, if you make the stylistic choice not to include punctuation at the end of your bullet points, but then use punctuation in a different list in the same document, it will look like you’ve made a proofreading mistake.
So, regardless of how you choose to lay out your bullet points, ensure that the formatting is consistent. To ensure absolute consistency, if your style guide doesn’t cover this issue already, we advise that you use and expand on the approach we have given above. These simple steps will help you use bullet points effectively to organize and highlight important information in your writing. If you need further support with formatting bullet points, our team of experts is ready to help and will proofread your first 500 words for free!