Sunday, July 29, 2012

Punctuation Pointers, Part 3: Capitalizing and Punctuating Lists

No universal standard exists for capitalizing and punctuating bulleted or numbered lists. The Microsoft Word default is to capitalize the first word in each item, and the editors of one of my clients insist that I follow this pattern when writing for them. Another client wants me not to capitalize or insert end punctuation except for a period at the end of the final item. Lawyers tend to insert semicolons at the end of each item, an and at the end of the penultimate one, and a period at the end of the final one.

None of these systems makes sense to me because they either undermine the grammatical sense underlying the content or they complicate the simplicity that lists are intended to convey. Regardless of which system you prefer, do not say or let anyone tell you (not even me) that there's a right way to capitalize and punctuate lists. All ways are a matter of taste.

Here is how I apply capitalization and punctuation to lists:

Do not capitalize or punctuate if the items are not sentences. Example:

Please remember to bring the following documents:
  • birth certificate
  • driver's license
  • passport

Capitalize the first word and apply periods at the end of each item when the items are sentences. Example:

If you are the last to leave the office, please complete the following security requirements:
  1. Lock the window.
  2. Set the alarm.
  3. Turn off the lights.
  4. Lock the door.

This system makes the most sense to me because it is compatible to Standard English rules, consistent for the reader grasping the content, and memorable for the writer to employ.