Vertical lists are a useful structure in plain language principles for document architecture, because they aid reading. But they also provide visual prominence to the content, and sometimes that’s not warranted or desired. So, when should you use a vertical list and when should you not? Even within the guidelines we find below, there is room for personal preference, house style, and conventions of the medium. For example, recipes will always place ingredients in a vertical list.
When not to make a vertical list
Keep the following lists run-in, in line with the rest of the prose in the paragraph:
"Sometimes list format may not be the best choice. For example, when items in a list consist of very long sentences, or of several sentences, and the list itself does not require typographic prominence..." [CMOS 6.130] "Short, simple lists are usually better run in, especially if the introductory text and the items in the list together form a sentence" [CMOS 6.128]
When to set a list vertically
There are two primary considerations guiding when to set a list vertically instead of as inline prose:
- More than 2 points, unless those 2+ points do not warrant visual prominence afforded by the vertical arrangement and resulting white space on the page. (Or in fiction.)
- One or two points if the format ensures consistency between like elements in a document.
"Lists that require typographic prominence, that are relatively long, or that contain multiple levels..." [CMOS 6.128]
Numbers Vs Bullets
A vertical list can start each item with an icon (most often a dot/bullet or dash), a number, a letter, nothing (as in a list of recipe ingredients), or a combination of these.
"Unless introductory numerals or letters serve a purpose—to indicate the order in which tasks should be done, to suggest chronology or relative importance among the items, to facilitate text references, or, in a run-in list, to clearly separate the items—they may be omitted." [CMOS 6.127] "The use of 'numbered lists' may connote an unwanted or unwarranted ordinal position (e.g., chronology, importance, priority) among the items. ..." [APA 3.04]
Watch for numbering that recontinues from a previous list (sometimes many pages previous) or that restarts when it shouldn’t. List numbering is an extremely glitchy feature in Word. Sometimes the best course of action is to manually number the list.
- CMOS—Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edn
- APA—Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edn
- SSF—Scientific Style and Format
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