Punctuation and procedure titles?

Subject: Punctuation and procedure titles?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 9 Mar 2000 09:45:48 -0500

Angela Pollak wondered: <<Do you punctuate procedural titles with a colon?
.. And what is your reasoning?... Roughly half said it is correct, and the
other half said it is incorrect. Some based the decision on opinion, some on
snippets of grammar rules that may or may not be relevant to the field of
software documentation. I even asked two grammarians and they both came up
with opposite answers.>>

You've received different answers because this is not a matter of grammar,
and thus, no objective, universally accepted answer would be possible. It
_is_ a matter of style, and in all such matters, the "correct" answer
depends on which style guide you prefer to consult. As I've done in the
past, let me emphasize that these books are style _guides_, not style
_rules_, and should be treated accordingly. If you understand why something
is done, then you can be consistent in doing it.

Why do I say that punctuating lists is not a matter of grammar? First,
because a typical list begins with a sentence fragment, and given that
you've broken one of the more important grammatical rules ("no sentence
fragments") by basing your paragraph on an ungrammatical structure,
wondering what other rules "must" apply seems kind of silly. Second,
traditional grammar deals primarily with the relationships between words,
_not_ the relationships between sentences; it would not be too simplistic to
describe grammar as "the rules for constructing sentences". That's not to
say that you shouldn't try to be as grammatical as possible so that the
bullets in the list still make sense; all I'm saying is that you shouldn't
count on grammar to make the list as a whole "correctly punctuated".

Given that this is the case, the primary goal for creating any list (once
you've made the information clear and easy to understand) is that it's more
important to be consistent in lists than it is to worry about "correct"
punctuation. This suggests that each bullet should be rewritten so that it
is parallel to the other bullets: each bullet should be either a
grammatically complete sentence, or a fragment that completes the sentence
that introduces the list, but you should never mix the two forms. If any
bullet must include more than one sentence, then _all_ the bullets should be
standalone sentence, and should follow normal rules for sentence
punctuation. If the bullets are all sentence fragments that complete the
original sentence, then it's logical to treat the entire list as the
functional equivalent of a single sentence, broken over multiple lines. Just
as such a sentence would introduce the list of sentence fragments, separated
from the introductory clause by a colon, you'd use commas (or semicolons, if
the clauses contain their own clauses separated by commas) at the end of
each bullet, and a period for the final bullet. Here's how this works:

This list contains lions, tigers, and bears.
This list contains:
- lions,
- tigers,
- and bears.

This list contains compound clauses, with internal comma-delimited
punctuation; lions, tigers, and bears; and an illustrative example.
This list contains:
- compound clauses, with internal comma-delimited punctuation;
- lions, tigers, and bears;
- and an illustrative example.

In both examples, you could also put the "and" on the second to last bullet
(following the comma or semicolon). Again, a matter of style, not grammar.
You can also treat each bullet as a sentence, whether or not it fits the
grammatical criteria for a sentence, and start it with a capital and end it
with a period. The exact opposite approach would be to lower-case the first
letter and use no terminal punctuation. Both are consistent, even if I don't
particularly like them for my own style.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Hofstadter's Law: The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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