Sunday, February 19, 2006

Having something in common with Dick Cheney

It pains me to admit I have anything in common with Dick Cheney -- but I do. We both use bullets. Of course, the bullets I use are very different from the bullets (oops, I mean "birdshot") Dick Cheney uses.

The bullets I'm talking about are lists set out in text in such a way that the reader's eye is drawn to it. The official Plain Language terms is "vertical lists" -- a generic term chosen because such lists can begin with:
  • numbers,
  • letters,
  • characters, or
  • symbols.

I generally just refer to such lists as "bullet lists", based on the idea that dots -- like those used in the vertical list above -- sort of look like bullets. (Or at least this is what I imagine a bullet looks like when it's coming at you!)

Vertical lists are popular in business writing because they add visual appeal and variety, and they can help in avoiding repetition. But, they have to be carefully crafted and some information does not lend itself to such lists.

Crafting vertical lists -- the preamble

There are two parts to vertical lists. The first part is what I call the preamble. Because there's often (though not always) a colon just before the items listed, think of the preamble as the text before the colon.

The preamble must directly relate to every item listed. In crafting a vertical list, the writer should go back and read the preamble followed by every item to make sure the thought started by the preamble is completed by each listed item.

In the example above, the preamble is "... such lists can begin with:". As can be seen below, the preamble followed by each bulleted item forms a complete thought:

... such lists can begin with numbers,
... such lists can begin with letters,
... such lists can begin with characters, and
... such lists can begin with symbols.

[Disclaimer: the word processing capabilities on are limited and it won't allow me to indent the above list, as I normally would to draw further attention to it.]

Crafting vertical lists -- the items must be similar

The second part of a vertical list is the list itself. Though it sounds obvious, the items listed must all be similar. Not only must they fit with the preamble, they should all be parallel in grammatical structure.

The easiest way of showing what I mean is by example. In the following list the items are not similar and do not all fit with the preamble:

Analyze the transaction to determine whether it was:
  1. arm's length,
  2. pursuant to a written agreement,
  3. the result of a court order, or
  4. the market conditions dictated the sale.

Item number 4 clearly does not fit with the other items. It is different structurally and it does not work with the preamble. The simplest way of fixing the list would be to remove item 4. (You would want to include number 4 in a sentence following the list.)

Using bullets with care!

Clearly bullets have their uses in business communication. But, as Dick Cheney learned this week, you have to use them with great care!


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