Bullet Points, We Hardly Know You
The bullet point is the only typographical symbol I am aware of which can take many forms and still be recognizable as a bullet point. Early forms of the bullet point, created on moveable type press and typewriters, were simply hyphens or asterisks. But, with many fonts now available, the shapes bullet points can take are nearly limitless.
When searching for rules or accepted guidelines on bullet point usage, one is deluged with opinions, but few rules surface.
My formal introduction to bullet points came with the widespread use of Microsoft Powerpoint, in the early 1990s. I don’t know how we managed to communicate ideas before the discovery of such a versatile symbol. Consider how The Book of Genesis might be transformed by bullets:
- Day One: Light
- Day Two: Sky
- Day Three: Water, Land, Plants
- Day Four: Sun, Moon, Stars
- Day Five: Birds and Fish
- Day Six: Animals, Humans
- Day Seven: Rest
No English or writing teacher had ever covered the proper usage of such a symbol and, since a bullet point in many cases allows words to be omitted from an otherwise complete sentence, many avid bullet point users are at a loss as to how to punctuate a bullet point.
I offer the following guidelines to assist both the novice and experienced bullet point user, and welcome other suggestions to more clearly define this fledgling subject matter.
- If the words following a bullet point form a complete sentence, end with a period.
- Sentence fragments should not be punctuated
- Any bullet point that contains two or more sentences is too long. Consider separating.
- If the sentence contains other punctuation, such as a comma, end with a period.
- Ending with a semicolon is not recommended
- It is acceptable to punctuate bullets in a common list differently, as long as the guidelines above are followed.
In short, bullet points define lists; however, not all lists should be defined by bullets. When listing steps that need to be followed in a particular order, for example, numbering the steps works best.