This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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19 March 2013

Do you take your lists with or without semicolons?

How do you format your bulleted lists?

Many of our clients prefer the traditional legal format that uses semicolons at the end of each bulleted item, with 'and' or 'or' at the end of the second-to-last item. 

Avoid visual clutter

We have a plain English prejudice against semicolons in bulleted lists. Semicolons are ‘visual clutter’. Scientific research suggests that visual clutter impacts on a reader’s ability to focus. People find it much more difficult to recognise things in the midst of clutter.
The most widespread impediment to reading and object recognition … is the mysterious process known as crowding, which is the deleterious effect of clutter ...

Objects that can be easily identified in isolation seem indistinct and jumbled in clutter ... Crowding impairs not only discrimination of object features and contours, but also the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to objects in clutter. [Visual Crowding: A fundamental limit on conscious perception and object recognition, David Whitney and Dennis M. Levi]

Focus on readability

Semicolons make the document look more legalistic, more difficult, and less reader-friendly, which sets the reader up to believe they are going to have difficulty reading it.

So our plain English approach when writing bulleted lists is to leave out semicolons and those extra 'ands' and 'ors'. Instead, we make sure that the context makes it clear how many of the bullet points apply.

If necessary, we change the stem sentence so that the reader can’t be mistaken. For example, we might write a stem sentences that says: 'as long as one of the following applies...'

Small changes can have a big effect on readability and tone.