Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

Bullet Time

The title of this article refers to:

  1. Minnesota's conceal-and-carry law
  2. an oft-imitated special effect from the Matrix movies
  3. vertical lists that use heavy dots (or other marks) to distinguish each item

No politics or movie info here. The correct answer is (c). But why bother about list bullets?

Switching from a standard paragraph to a vertical (display) list may improve comprehension. Especially nowadays, when people scan text rather than reading word for word, it's helpful to distinguish an important set of items by using the easy-to-spot layout of a vertical list. Such lists may use numbers, letters, or bullets at the beginning of each item.

Format the vertical list according to its content and use.

  • Enumerate the items with numbers or letters if the sequence is important.
  • Identify the items with numbers or letters if the remaining text needs to refer back to a specific item.
  • Distinguish the items with bullets (or other marks) in situations where enumeration and identification aren't necessary.

By the way, each item in the previous list is a complete sentence. So each item begins with a capital letter and ends with a period.

While vertical lists are useful, that doesn't mean you should haphazardly hack up your sentences or ignore proper punctuation. Then again, when it comes to vertical lists, I believe the operative word is style, not rules. The standards for a product introduction on a web page can be a lot looser than those for an academic article in a professional journal.

For example, I think most experts agree that you shouldn't bother creating a vertical list with only one item. Yet I once did just that in an online program. Why? Because it was part of a series of lists. So, to keep the overall look consistent from screen to screen, a one-bullet list made sense in that situation.

In other words, I recommend using the best method to communicate the message. Of course, standards become standards because they work most of the time. So keep established standards in mind when it's bullet time.

A vertical list of short items needs

  • no capitalization
  • no commas
  • no period

Note that, in this example, "no" could go at the end of the first line, since it applies to all three items. However, a "no" in the introduction is more likely to be missed by someone scanning the page. That's why I put "no" on each line.

Punctuation marks that may be used in vertical lists include the following:

  • a colon after the introduction, if it's an incomplete clause, or if it uses "the following" or a similar phrase;
  • a comma or semicolon after each item, especially longer items that complete the introductory sentence; and
  • a period after the last item, but only when you also use commas or semi-colons after the preceding items.

I've seen conflicting recommendations about using a colon when the bulleted items merely complete the lead-in sentence, as above. I've also seen varying opinions about whether to put "and" at the end of the second-to-last item. Chances are, no matter what you do, someone will think you're wrong. But someone will think you're right.

As I said before, these are style issues. With bullet time, the most important thing is to determine up front what your standards will be. Then follow those standards consistently.

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Copyright Judy Nollet, White Plume Communications. 
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