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.


  1. Joe Kimble has tweeted to say "What if one of the list items has an internal comma?"

    Is necessary punctuation visual clutter? No. Unnecessary punctuation is visual clutter, stopping readers from focusing on what is important. Leaving out necessary punctuation leads to mental confusion – an even more powerful barrier to understanding. If a comma inside a list item is essential to the meaning, it needs to stay. End punctuation on lists, however, is almost always unnecessary.

  2. Joe Kimble responded with a tweet that said: So Judy would have no punctuation at all after each item in the list?

    As Joe knows (none better), the goal is always clarity. If end punctuation helps, bring it on. If it hinders, get rid of it. I saw this charming example just yesterday. (The details are disguised to protect the guilty – the actual document was about finance.)

    Do not proceed without taking corrective measures if one or more of the following apply:

    * the pot has no water in it; and/or
    * the jug is not plugged in at the wall; and/or
    * the power is off; and/or
    * no-one is thirsty.

    What an abomination! On the other hand, a judiciously used ‘and’ or ‘or’ can give the reader certainty. I’d rather rewrite to keep the page clean, but if I can’t, I’ll use end punctuation.

    Our internal style guide has three list styles.

    * If the stem sentence and the list items are all complete sentences, we punctuate with an initial capital and a full stop.

    * If the stem sentence is an introductory phrase or clause, followed by a list, we start each list item with a lower case letter, and leave end punctuation off each item but the last. We give the last one a full stop. In essence, we see the list as a run-on sentence, with white space taking the place of punctuation between each item in the list.

    * If the stem sentence is followed by a simple list of single words, we don’t punctuate any of the list items.

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