Punctuation: Lists—Best Practices

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Has your to-do list ever included learning more about proper list-writing practices? Well procrastinate no further, and check that box off today!

(1) Colon Use:

  • Rule (Beginning a List with a Colon): Use a colon to introduce a list only when what comes before it could serve as a complete sentence.
    • So “Plaintiff’s claim fails for at least three reasons: (1) she doesn’t have standing; (2) the statute of limitations has run; and (3) she has put forth no evidence that the defendant intended to deprive her of her property.”
    • But not “Assault is the: (1) intentional creation, (2) of reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive bodily contact.”

(2) Numbering/Lettering:

  • Rule (When to Use Numbering vs Lettering): The longer the items of a list become, the greater the strain imposed on the reader. Thus, the use of numbering or lettering for list items is recommended for lists that contain complex or longer items.
    • Lettering: When the items of a list are equally significant and don’t need to be in a particular order (elements of a cause of action), lettering is appropriate: “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) requires (a) the intentional or reckless; (b) infliction of severe emotional or mental distress; through (c) extreme and outrageous conduct.”
    • Numbering: If the list contains chronological steps, or if there is a hierarchy of importance within the list elements (factors for a balancing test), then use numbering: “To file a lawsuit, the plaintiff must (1) determine the proper court; (2) prepare the complaint; and (3) serve the defendant.”

(3) Parallel Structure:

                          • Rule: All the items on your list must be the same part of speech / follow the same pattern for the parts of speech that comprise each item.
                          • Example of Improper Construction: Both purported counts depend on the same law, same facts, and have the same defects.
                            • Why: Items one and three are verbs (depend/have), while item two is a noun (facts). The fix is to make all three items nouns or verbs.
                          • Proper Construction #1: Both purported counts share the same law, same facts, and same defects.
                          • Proper Construction #2: Both purported counts depend on the same law, share the same facts, and suffer from the same defects.

(4) Commas/Semicolons:

  • Rule: For simple lists of more than two items, separate the items with a comma: “The witness saw three things: a car, a man, and a suitcase.” When a list item itself has (1) an internal comma, or (2) an internal and/or, then separate the list items with semicolons: “Defendant (a) lives in Austin, Texas; (b) committed assault or battery, or both; and (c) has failed to timely submit the requested discovery.”

Now to ensure you can apply your learnings for colon use, numbering conventions, parallel structure, and semicolon use, here are a few practice problems!


1 / 5

1. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? Although purists denounced Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Kennedy International Airport for the juxtaposition of its roof’s smooth concrete surfaces against the voluminous steel that held it up, the building’s integrity was manifested in the relationships between its forms and spaces, between its interior and exterior, and the procession through its three-dimensional imagery.

2 / 5

2. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? When you write, assume that your reader is distracted, busy, and simply will not spend much time parsing your thoughts.

3 / 5

3. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? The community is home to a lifelong learning center, a place where residents are treated to lectures, a broad array of classes, and an expansive library, and to a wellness compound, a place where a cadre of world-class health professionals provides the latest in preventive care.

4 / 5

4. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? Because most airlines are tolerated but not beloved, they use several tricks to encourage even the most jaded travelers to stay loyal to a single carrier: creating a phone line for frequent travelers and their spouses and children, and sometimes even colleagues; showering their best customers with special “Just for You” airfare deals; and secretly assist vacation-hungry frequent flyers by reserving award seats for their eyes only.

5 / 5

5. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? Effective mediators do their best to balance consideration of the parties’ respective positions, ferreting out diversion tactics and attempts to manipulate, and to ensure that the back-and-forth negotiations not become an end in themselves.

Your score is

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