If your document is Star Wars, the bullet points are Jar Jar Binks… Because they look like they belong and they grab attention, but they’re unpredictable and sometimes completely out of control. You’ve got to know how to keep them reigned in. (I was going to use a Clint Eastwood-style opener like, “are you feeling lucky, Point?” but couldn’t follow it through – ah well…).
So why use them, you ask? Good. You’re already dubious as to their relevance. To be brief, bulleted lists are really only useful in business or technical documents, or for notes magneted to the fridge; they’ll ruin a narrative like no other thing could. If you’re listing in a narrative, please use semi-colons, and keep it brief, okay? The first nice thing about bullet-pointed lists that I must concede is their contextual practicality: depending on your bullet format you can make one point more important that the others, or make them all the same. A good example is the “darling please do” list:
- Water plants
- Take out garbage
- Feed dog
- Mend hole in my socks
- Churn butter
Using the plain bullet keeps the relevance equal. Darling must do all the things, but it doesn’t matter in which order (the mending could probably be done while the butter’s churning, etc). Compare with a technical how-to list:
- Wash hair with volumising shampoo.
- Condition with silkising treatment.
- Separate hair into sections and attach curlers.
- Allow hair to air dry to 75%.
- Take out curlers and blow into desired style.
So, this stuff has to be done in the correct order or your hair will look horrible (or so society would have us women believe – ha HA!), hence the use of numbers. It’s this type of list which can really only be presented as bulleted, otherwise the directions can get too wordy and complicated: word reduction and conciseness is the second nice thing I’ll concede about bullet points. As long as the first word in each point begins with a verb (in the same form, please, and preferably the bare form: wash, condition, churn, mend…) you don’t really need many more words, and you’re allowed to forget about ones like ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘your’! It’s so rebellious! (Look at the picture – Bill Gates did that bit all wrong, shame. Even having all of the money won’t make you good at some stuff).
There are really no linguistics-based rules about punctuation in bullet-pointed lists – you can use semi-colons, full stops, full sentences, part sentences, single lines of text or many lines – but the important thing is consistency. You don’t have to start each point with a capital letter, because sometimes informality is ‘cool’ (groan), but be sure do it the same way for every one; similarly with full stops. But then if you use full stops at the end of each point you have to use a capital letter to start each new point – you see? When in doubt, do what the MS Word grammar check suggests.
Oh and another thing, don’t use CRAZY CHARACTERS in place of bullets, like hearts or arrows or pizza slices. Especially if you’re writing to me. Oh man they’re so stupid, and since bullet points are only going to be used in formal documents from now on (right? RIGHT??) they’re also unprofessional. As Pope John Paul II said*, “a good bullet in the right place will do wonders for your career”.
*I can’t back that up.