Just in time for Christmas, this week we discuss how to punctuate your naughty and nice lists (and any other lists that may come up during the year).
Lists can be set out in many different ways. As a starting point, remember that lists consisting of items that are themselves sentences can always be written as separate sentences, e.g.,
- Dear Santa, I’ve been especially good this year. I made my bed every day. I wrote a writing tip every month. I cried softly—and didn’t throw a tantrum—when the Ducks lost to Stanford. I ate my vegetables.
Otherwise, the following guidelines may be helpful.
If a list is introduced by a complete grammatical thought, then use a colon at the end of the introductory sentence; but if the list is not introduced by a complete grammatical thought, then a colon cannot be used.
- Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant, around the whole room, and he took every present: pop guns, bicycles, roller skates, drums, checkerboards, tricycles, popcorn, and plums.
- Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant, around the whole room, and he took: pop guns, bicycles, roller skates, drums, checkerboards, tricycles, popcorn, and plums.
If you are setting out items in a list, those items may be, but are not required to be, numbered, e.g.,
- The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote: stink, stank, stunk.
- The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote: (1) stink, (2) stank, (3) stunk.
Generally, items in a list—whether numbered or not and whether introduced by a colon or not—may be separated by either semicolons or commas; but either semicolons or commas should be used consistently throughout a single brief. If the items are long or contain internal punctuation, it’s probably clearer to use a semicolon, e.g.,
- And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling (how could it be so?): it came without ribbons; it came without tags; it came without packages, boxes, or bags.
Finally, as discussed in an earlier post, the first item in a list should not begin with an initial capital letter, unless the items are general rules, e.g.,
- On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave [the following presents] to me: twelve drummers drumming; eleven pipers piping; ten lords a-leaping; nine ladies waiting; eight maids a-milking; seven swans a-swimming; six geese a-laying; five golden rings; four calling birds; three french hens; two turtle doves; and a partridge in a pear tree.
That is all for now …