7. Constructing Text


Lists enable you to break out information from the paragraph format and put it into an easier-to-read format. Lists must comprise at least two entries. Be sure that your lists are unmistakably lists; that is, that they cannot be confused with steps, which denote actions. Although you may need to use secondary entries, remember that complex entries defeat the easy-to-read format of a list.

You can use unnumbered lists when the entries are not dependent upon the sequence in which you present them. These lists are often preceded by a symbol, such as a bullet (a solid circle) or a hollow or solid square.

When the entries are dependent upon sequence, use numerals and letters to build the hierarchy.

The design of your document should also specify how lists are aligned and spaced in relation to the paragraph text. You can place the symbol or numeral flush left under the preceding paragraph or indent it. For numbered lists, you also have formatting options, such as using an alternative font for the numbers and letters.

Introducing Lists

Introduce a list with one of the following:

When you use a sentence fragment and a colon to introduce an unnumbered list, be sure that the syntax of the items in the list agrees with the syntax of the introduction, as shown in the next example.


    You can send a mail message by:


    You can send a mail message by:

When you use a complete sentence to introduce the list, decide whether the list entries flow naturally from the sentence. If so, use a colon. If the introductory sentence completes its information, use a period.

For example, you could use either of these statements to introduce the same list:

    Send a mail message in any of the following three ways:

    The operating system provides three convenient ways to send mail messages.

Capitalizing and Punctuating Lists

Be consistent when you construct the items in lists. Avoid mixing complete sentences and sentence fragments in the same list. In lists that mingle complete sentences with sentence fragments, a logical system of capitalization and punctuation becomes difficult to establish.

A simple style, which works well in computer documents, specifies that you:

Writing Unnumbered Lists

Use unnumbered lists whenever the sequence of the entries is not important.


      The workstation you purchased comes with:

        o System unit

        o Monitor

        o Keyboard and mouse

        o Maybe a CD-ROM drive

        o Maybe a modem

    The last two entries in the example are not similar to the first three, because they are options, not standard equipment.


      The workstation you purchased comes with a:

        o System unit

        o Monitor

        o Keyboard and mouse

        After setting up your workstation, you can add several options, such as a CD-ROM drive or modem.

    Lists sometimes begin with a summary word or phrase, followed by an explanation. In these cases, you have to define a format and type style for the lists. The next example shows a style that specifies the summary in italics, an en dash to separate the summary from the explanation, and a capital letter for the first word of the explanation.

      The workstation you purchased comes with:

    You could also present the summary in bold and end it with a period. The text that follows is in the same font as the document's body text. This style is often referred to as a bold lead-in; it works well when you have lengthy explanatory text for each entry.

      The workstation you purchased comes with the following hardware:

      System unit. This houses the . . . .

      Monitor. This is a 19-inch . . . .

      Keyboard and mouse. These are input . . . .

Writing Numbered Lists

Use numbered lists when the order of entries is important, but exercise caution. Many readers are impatient to complete tasks and could mistake numbered lists for procedures.

Write the text for numbered lists in a style that differs from steps and instructions. Don't assume that a reader will notice any format differences between numbered lists and numbered steps.

Avoid using verbs in the imperative form because they could lead a reader to believe that the numbered lists are a set of instructions. Use gerunds or participles instead. For example:


    Creating a file with the vi editor involves four basic operations:

      1. Start vi.

      2. Add text to the file.

      3. Write the file to save its contents.

      4. Quit, or stop use of, vi.

To avoid possible misinterpretation, introduce the list clearly and don't use imperative verbs.


    Creating a file with the vi editor involves four basic operations:

      1. Starting vi

      2. Adding text to the file

      3. Writing the file to save its contents

      4. Quitting vi