Sometimes prose is better than a list
They are often used when a paragraph would be more effective. Take this following example from a hospital information sheet:
- Sit on the side of the bed initially
- Transfer to the bedside chair
- Walk to the bathroom
- Walk freely around the ward
- Progress should be gradual, no exertion
The main idea here is that the patient should move gently at first, but it’s buried at the end of the list. And isn’t ‘transfer’ an odd word choice?
Long lists are difficult to read
Another common mistake is long bulleted lists with no introductory paragraph. This causes two problems – you don’t know what’s most important and as the information isn’t grouped, you have to mentally sort it as you read. You can easily overlook key information in such lists.
An example from the same hospital information sheet dumps sport, sex and bathing in the same list.
- Short baths can be taken (10–15 minutes).
- Showers may be taken as soon as you are able to walk around.
- Wounds may get wet but should be dried thoroughly. Use a hairdryer if necessary and leave Steristrips on wounds for 5 days.
- Sport: start gradually and build up (walking, swimming, jogging), no exertion, avoid high-impact exercises for 6 weeks (3 months for pelvic floor surgery) and stop if it hurts.
- Sexual intercourse can resume after 4–6 weeks.
- After major surgery avoid heavy lifting for 3 months (i.e. no more than 10kg/2 telephone books).
- Avoid standing for long periods.
- Recommence driving when pain medication is no longer required (check with your insurance company regarding cover following surgery).
- Recovery from major surgery is dependant [sic] on the individual and may take from 4 weeks to several months.
Many writers use inconsistent styles for lists
My third gripe is inconsistency of style. When all bullet points relate back to the same stem statement, you should be able to read them as if they were separate statements.
Look at the structure of the above list and you can see that several of the bullet points do not relate to the stem statement (Following surgery recovery from major surgery is dependant [sic] on the individual … ).
Learn more about punctuation with my online course: Grammar, Punctuation and Usage.
Read my blog on How to punctuate lists.
Subscribe to my monthly e-newsletter to receive writing and grammar tips.