Lists can be useful tools in a publication, allowing information to be presented in an orderly, logical and concise way. Lists can simplify complicated material by breaking it into smaller items.

Bulleted or numbered lists are easier to scan than paragraph-style text, making them particularly suitable for web material.

This section covers:

For information on what line spacing to use when formatting lists, see Styles and templates.

Reminder. Ensure that all items in a list are parallel.
Did you know? We haven’t always used bullet lists.

The first documented use of the word ‘bullet’ was in 1950, when it was included in the New York News type book as a typographical device used to break up white space in advertising.

The use of bullets slowly developed from there.

In 1960, bullets are defined in the Oxford English dictionary (OED) as ‘small ornaments … primarily useful as type-breakers, story-starters, and story-enders’. In 1971, an OED citation indicates that editors had begun using ‘various-sized dots or bullets at the beginning of a paragraph as a means of breaking up large gray masses of type’.

Bullets particularly found a home in technical writing. For example, bullets became popular in NASA through the 1980s. Richard Feynman, in an article about the Challenger enquiry, mentions that ‘This is how all information is communicated by NASA – by writing down everything behind little black circles, called bullets’.

However, general use was probably hampered by technical limitations. In 1982, Edmond H Weiss‘s The writing system for engineers and scientists discussed the challenge of persuading typists to create bullets. At the time, creating bullets was a 2-step process: first typing lowercase o’s and then filling them in with a pen.

Once word processors and computers removed the typing challenge of creating a bullet, bullets came into widespread use.

Source: Neeley KA & Alley M (2011). The humble history of the ‘bullet’. In: ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings, Vancouver, Canada.

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