Grammatical Rules for Lists

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

The grammar rules around lists aren't tricky; they're in place to prevent confusion. This lesson will teach you the rules to properly write lists, whether they're horizontal or vertical.

How Do I Make a List?

Perhaps you are writing an essay for school and need to include a few lists. How do you format them? What about this weekend when you have a garage sale and want to advertise the items you'll be selling?

In both formal and casual occasions, there are rules for making lists. Lists can be horizontal, meaning they're usually integrated into a sentence, or vertical, which can bring attention to the items just by being visually separate from the rest of the text.

Horizontal List

Introducing Lists

When you're about to offer a list, the way you introduce it depends on how long your list is. If you only have two or three items in your list, there's no need to introduce it with punctuation.

''Martha planted corn, beans, and oregano.''

If your list is longer, you'll need to introduce it with either a colon or an em dash, like so:

''Melvin picked up some supplies from the hardware store: nails, a hammer, drill bits, duct tape, a screwdriver, and a plastic spoon.''

In this case the colon (:) introduces the list, separating the main sentence from the items that follow.

An em dash (—) can also be used to indicate the start of a list, but dashes are typically used in less formal writing.

''Check out my yard sale! I've got plenty of goodies—records, tapes, microwaves, lava lamps, and rubber chickens.''

Separating Items in a List

As seen in the examples, commas are used to separate items in a list. The question is, what about the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma) that comes before the last item in the list? That's the subject of debate and can really go either way, as long as the sentence is written to avoid confusion. Just make sure you are consistent throughout your writing. You can write:

''I have a hedgehog, a bearded dragon, and a puppy.''

or

''I have a hedgehog, a bearded dragon and a puppy.''

However, if your list contains some long items, you should use the semicolon (;) to separate them instead. Here's an example:

''You can order biscuits, gravy, and sausage; eggs, toast, and jam; or pancakes with syrup and strawberries.''

In general, use semicolons in lists to separate phrases that contain commas. This avoids confusion.

Vertical lists

Vertical lists are a different matter. Choose your formatting based on the type of list you want to make.

Bulleted Lists

If the order of the items doesn't matter, then use a bulleted list. For example,

Camping supplies:

  • tent
  • sleeping bag
  • hatchet
  • canteen
  • lantern

Numbered Lists

Use numbers for your list when the order of the items is important, like so:

Steps for making soup:

  1. Chop the vegetables.
  2. Boil the stock.
  3. Add vegetables to the stock.
  4. Cover the pot with a lid and simmer.

Letters

Finally, you can use letters instead of bullets. Do this when you might want to refer to a particular item on the list later.

Punctuation covered in this lesson:

a. comma
b. em dash
c. semicolon
d. colon

You can use either uppercase or lowercase letters for your list, but lowercase is more common.

If you have items that go with certain items in your list, you need to use a different form of formatting and indent the secondary items further. Like this:

  • reptiles
    • snakes
    • lizards
  • mammals
    • deer
    • lions

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