List structure

Lists are useful for simplifying complex material, but this advantage can be lost if the list itself or individual list items are too long. Normal paragraph style (with sensible use of headings) is preferable to using bullets or numbers for:

  • long lists of items (running over more than 1 printed page or screen)
  • lists with long (ie wordy) items (consisting of more than 1 or 2 sentences).

This section covers:

List length

Keep lists short, if possible. Readers can lose track of the material that introduces the list if the list contains more than about 10 items.

One way to deal with long lists is to group items to form a hierarchy of bullets and dashes (see Bulleted lists that contain secondary lists for more information). Another is to use headings for subgroups of items within the lists, to help readers locate relevant items (see Using headings wisely).

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Length of list items

Keep the wording of the list items concise and consistent. The items in a list work best when all or most are single words or short phrases. The visual cohesion of a list is impaired if the items are too long or irregular in length.

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Parallel list structure

The items in a list must be ‘parallel’ – that is, have the same grammatical construction, so that they all follow on from the text that introduces the list:

The main outcomes of the project were:

  • identification of contributing factors
  • development of an evaluation method
  • completion of a preliminary evaluation. [Each item starts with a noun.]

The areas of action to be addressed in this quarter are:

  • improving service delivery
  • enhancing the customer interface
  • strengthening the product’s optics online. [Each item starts with a verb.]

See Using parallel structure for more information on parallel constructions.

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Text that introduces the list

The text that introduces the list is known as the ‘lead-in text’. The rules for lead-in text are the same for both bulleted and numbered lists.

If the list items are sentence fragments (rather than full sentences), the lead-in text will also be an incomplete sentence. See Bulleted lists of sentence fragments for information on punctuating lists of sentence fragments.

If the list items are full sentences, the lead-in text should also be a full sentence. See Bulleted lists of full sentences for information on punctuating lists of full sentences.

If all items in the list start with the same word, you can either include that word in each item or move the word to the lead-in text:

We look at who the main groups of users are and at:

  • their needs
  • their expectations and understanding
  • their behaviour.


We look at who the main groups of users are and at their:

  • needs
  • expectations and understanding
  • behaviour.

In a bulleted or numbered list of organisations – where some that have the as part of their name and some that do not – the the can be omitted to make the list easier to scan:

Western Australia has 5 universities:

  • Curtin University
  • Edith Cowan University
  • Murdoch University
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Western Australia.

However, include the (as appropriate) when the list occurs in running text:

Western Australia has 5 universities: Curtin University, Edith Cowan University, Murdoch University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Western Australia.
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