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Style Manual

Lists

Lists make it easy for users to scan and understand a series of items. Structure and style lists with the user in mind. Set up grammatical structure for list items with a lead-in.

Structure items in a series as a list

Lists are series of items. If you have only one item, you don’t need a list.

Use lists to:

  • help users skim information
  • group related information
  • help users understand how items relate to each other
  • show an order of steps
  • arrange information by importance.

Lists can be ordered or numbered (the order is important) or unordered (the order is not critical).

All lists have a phrase (lead-in) or heading to introduce the list.

Accessibility requirements

Use lists to make it easier for users to skim content and navigate pages.

WCAG quick reference: 1.3.1 Info and relationships – level A

Make short lists

Long lists can lose the meaning and hierarchy as lower items are further away from the lead-in.

Move long lists to a separate page or an appendix.

Fragment list items are incomplete sentences. If list items run-on from the lean-in, the list should be very short. The full sentence should be fewer than 25 words.

Use a similar length for items

Write items in a list in a consistent length. This makes lists easier to scan.

Limit the number of lists

Content with too many lists is hard to follow. The content should flow so people can read it easily.

Choose the style of list that helps the user scan and understand

There are different ways to construct a list, whether it is ordered or unordered, these include:

  • fragment lists
  • sentence lists
  • stand-alone lists.

Use fragment lists to complete the lead-in

Fragments are phrases or incomplete sentences.

Another name for fragment lists is ‘phrase lists’.

Fragment lists have a:

  • lead-in phrase or sentence followed by a colon
  • list of fragments, each marked by a bullet.

Rules for fragment lists:

  • Use lower case for the first letter of each fragment, unless it is a proper noun.
  • Add a full stop to the last list item only.
  • Use a grammatically parallel structure for each list item.
  • Make sure each fragment can complete the lead-in.

The last rule means that if you add each fragment to the lead-in, it will make a complete sentence.

Use fragment list items when the lead-in states the grammatical subject.

Write this

Queensland is famous for its:

  • islands and coral reefs
  • abundant wildlife
  • tropical rainforest
  • beautiful beaches.

[If you combine the lead-in with each fragment, you make 4 complete sentences:

  • Queensland is famous for its islands and coral reefs.
  • Queensland is famous for its abundant wildlife.
  • Queensland is famous for its tropical rainforest.
  • Queensland is famous for its beautiful beaches.]
Not this

Queensland is famous for its:

  • islands and coral reefs
  • experience the tropical rainforest
  • the wildlife. It can kill you.
  • beautiful beaches.

[If you combine the lead-in with each fragment, the second sentence doesn’t make sense, ‘Queensland is famous for its ... experience the tropical rainforest’. Neither does the third sentence, ‘Queensland is famous for its ... the wildlife. It can kill you.’]

Use sentence lists for a series of complete sentences

Sentence lists have a list of sentences, each marked by bullets or numbers.

The list can have a:

  • heading (without a colon)
  • fragment lead-in (with a colon)
  • sentence lead-in (ending in a full stop).

Rules for sentence lists:

  • Follow normal sentence structure in each list item.
  • Start each list item with a capital letter and end it with a full stop.
  • Align run-over lines with the text, not the bullet or number.
  • Avoid using multiple sentences in each bullet or numbered item.

Use full sentence list items for imperative list items where there is no stated subject in the lead-in.

Example

The committee members decided the following actions:

  1. The committee secretary will respond to each recommendation.
  2. The secretary will allocate responses that need more work to members.
  3. Members will discuss the recommendations at the next committee meeting on 9 March.

Use stand-alone lists for fragments under a heading

Stand-alone lists have a heading without a colon. They list sentence fragments (not full sentences).

Brochures and technical documents often contain stand-alone lists.

Rules for stand-alone lists:

  • Use a heading, not a lead-in.
  • Start each fragment with a capital letter.
  • Don’t add full stops to the end of any of the fragments (even the last item).
  • Indent each list item if it helps people scan the content.
Example

My weekly tasks

  • Answering phone enquiries
  • Booking conference venues
  • Ordering stationery
  • Taking meeting minutes

Use consistent formatting for all lists

Sometimes you need to use different types of lists in the same piece of content.

Be consistent. Use the right punctuation and capital letters for each type of list and follow your organisation’s templates.

Each list must look the same as other lists of the same type. Consistency helps people scan lists.

Check that the list displays properly on all platforms.

Indent most lists

Indent most types of lists after the lead-in.

Indent stand-alone lists if it helps the user scan the list.

Use full stops for fragment and sentence lists (not stand-alone lists)

Finish fragment lists with a full stop after the last item. Finish each sentence in a sentence list with a full stop, including the last one.

If you don’t include the full stop, people using screen readers may assume the next paragraph is part of the list.

Stand-alone lists don’t end in a full stop.

Use minimal punctuation for all lists

Unnecessary punctuation makes the list look cluttered. Current government style is for minimal punctuation.

Don't use:

  • semicolons or commas at the end of list items
  • ‘and’ or ‘or’ after list items, including after the second-last list item.

You don’t need to write ‘etc.’ at the end of the list to show the list is incomplete. Lead-ins for incomplete lists can use ‘for example’, ‘including’ or ‘includes’.

Write numbered lists if the order is critical

Use a numbered (ordered) list when the order is important, such as a list of instructions.

Sometimes you have more than one numbered list in the document. You must choose whether to continue or reset the numbering across the lists.

Example

How to register for the conference:

  1. Choose the days you will attend.
  2. Pick the workshops you want to join.
  3. Enter your discount code (if you have one).

[This list is numbered because users must complete each step in turn.]

Put unnumbered lists in the order that helps the user

Use an unordered list if the order is not critical to understanding the content.

List items in the order that will make sense to the user reading it. It is common to write lists in alphabetical order.

Example

National parks near Perth 

  • Avon Valley National Park
  • Serpentine National Park
  • Walyunga National Park
  • Yanchep National Park

[This stand-alone list is unnumbered because there is no reason to prefer one national park over another. The alphabetical order is easy for users to follow.]

Write list items so they have parallel structure

Write all list items so they have the same grammatical structure. This is called ‘parallel structure’. It makes lists easier to read.

To make a parallel structure, use the same:

  • word type to start each item (such as a noun or a verb)
  • tense for each item (past, present or future)
  • sentence type (such as a question, direction or statement).

Move any words repeated in the list items to the lead-in. 

Write this

I will:

  • read more emails
  • go to meetings
  • be punctual.
Not this

I will be:

  • reading more emails
  • going to meetings
  • punctual.

[The last item is an adjective while other list items are verbs.]

Avoid using a multilevel list

Multilevel lists group information into a hierarchy. The levels explain how each item relates to other list items.

Some types of content need multilevel lists, but they can be hard for people to follow.

If you have to use multilevel lists:

  • Don’t to use more than 2 levels.
  • Use lowercase letters for the second level in a numbered list.
  • Use a dash for the second level in an unnumbered list.
  • Don’t use hollow (open) bullets.
  • Use the same symbol, number or letter for the same level in each list.
Avoid this

There are many types of birds in Australia, including:

  • nocturnal birds
    • frogmouths
    • nightjars
    • owls
  • marsh birds
    • crakes
    • grebes
    • snipes.

[A multilevel list with hollow bullets]

Release notes

The digital edition, like the sixth edition, calls for punctuation only for the last item in a bullet list. The Content Guide advised against punctuating the final item in a bullet list.

The digital edition advises against using ‘and’ or ‘or’ at the end of dot points in lists. The sixth edition allowed ‘or’ at the end of a list item, though recommended avoiding this if possible.

The digital edition says multilevel lists can be used if essential, but they should have no more than two levels. The Content Guide said lists should have no more than one level.

The sixth edition permitted the addition of sentences to fragments in lists with advice about punctuation. The digital edition does not include a rule for the addition of sentences in new rules for fragment lists.

In sentence lists, the sixth edition allowed each list item to include up to two paragraphs. The digital edition is silent on this particular. It says to avoid using multiple sentences in bullet or numbered lists.

About this page

References

Centre for Information Design Research (2016) ‘Lists’, The GOV.UK content principles: conventions and research, report prepared by University of Reading, UK Government, accessed 30 May 2020.

Content Design London (2020) ‘Bullet points’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 30 May 2020.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Flann E, Hill B and Wang L (2014) The Australian editing handbook, Wiley, Milton.

Loranger H (9 April 2017) ‘7 tips for presenting bulleted lists in digital content’, Nielsen Norman Group, accessed 29 May 2020.

Lynch PJ and Horton S (2016) Web style guide, Web Style Guide website, accessed 29 May 2020.

McKenzie J (2011) The editor’s companion, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

McMurrey DA (n.d.) Online technical writing: lists, Chemnitz University of Technology, accessed 29 May 2020.

Moran K (5 April 2020) ‘How people read online: new and old findings’, Nielsen Norman Group, accessed 17 May 2020.

Oxford University Press (2016) New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘5.2: use lists to help people scan’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca, accessed 29 May 2020.

University of Chicago (2017) Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) (n.d.) ‘Understanding success criterion 1.3.1: info and relationships’, Understanding WCAG 2.1, W3C website.

W3C (2019) ‘Content structure’, Web accessibility tutorials, W3C website, accessed 3 June 2020.

This page was updated Monday 28 September 2020.

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