Punctuating the end of bullet points?

Subject: Punctuating the end of bullet points?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, T K <tvk_tw -at- yahoo -dot- ie>
Date: Wed, 03 May 2006 17:09:18 -0400

T K wondered: <<I have a question in relation to punctuation at the end of bullet points. It is my understanding that there are a few options for such punctuation: 1) no punctuation at all 2) use a semi-colon3) use a period>>

As you noted, you can use any option so long as you're consistent within a list and (ideally) within a publication. I say "ideally" in the latter case because only a bored editor will ever compare lists in different parts of a publication to see if they're parallel. Readers will never notice or care in most cases.

However, it pays to learn the difference between consistency and _foolish_ consistency*. If some of your bullets are grammatically complete sentences, whyever would you delete the terminal punctuation "just to be consistent"? Doesn't make much sense.

* “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”— Ralph Waldo Emerson in _Self-Reliance_.

<<My question concerns the option when no punctuation is used. What should one do if the content of the bullet point has more than one sentence? Obviously with more than one sentence there will be a period at the end of any preceding sentences. It would then seem incorrect to not have a period at the end of the final sentence in the bullet point.>>

Ah, you've discovered the problem with _foolish_ consistency. <g> The general solution is to ensure that all components of a given bulleted list are parallel: they should all be grammatically complete sentences, which take normal punctuation because such sentences must follow the usual rules of grammar, or they should all be sentence fragments; the latter don't follow the normal rules of grammar (they're not real sentences!) and thus, it makes little sense to punctuate them. After all, if you break the more important rules of grammar (that sentences should be grammatically complete), why would you honor the less important ones?

List should be parallel because if they're not, you confuse people. What is the poor reader to make of a list in which half the items start with imperative verbs, the other half start with gerunds, and the other other half are complete sentences?

<<For example, if a styleguide dictates that there will be no punctuation at the end of bullet points what happens for bullet points where there are multiple sentences?>>

That's where you take a step back and recognize that in an attempt to simplify things, the author of the style guide went too far, oversimplified, and created a nonsensical situation. You then have two choices: modify the style guide, or make a conscious decision to ignore the style guide. The latter option is important: after all, it's a ***guide***, not a book of law. The only reason to use a style guide is to benefit from the experience of other people who have developed good solutions for a range of situations. Where the solutions don't fit your specific situation, develop a new solution. You'd be amazed at how often people need to be reminded of this distinction.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
www.geoff-hart.com
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