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Bulleted Lists: Capitalization and Punctuation

By Judy Vorfeld

Did you know that before the intro­duc­tion of word pro­cess­ing (via word proces­sors and com­put­ers), most pub­li­ca­tions dis­played lists in either out­line form or num­bered lists. Now we have bullets.

This cre­ates a new layer of con­fu­sion on how to use cap­i­tal­iza­tion and punc­tu­a­tion in such lists. Following are some ques­tions and answers to use as guidelines:

When is it bet­ter to use bul­lets than numbers?

Use num­bered lists when you’re work­ing with instruc­tions to be done in sequence, and the num­bers sug­gest a hier­ar­chy. The same applies when some­one may refer to spe­cific items by num­ber. Numbered and unnum­bered lists are more com­monly used in schol­arly pub­li­ca­tions. If num­bers aren’t essen­tial, use bul­lets, espe­cially in busi­ness documents.

When do I cap­i­tal­ize the first let­ter in a bul­leted item?

In most cases, experts rec­om­mend that you start each bul­leted item with a cap­i­tal let­ter. We’re so pro­grammed to cap­i­tal­ize only proper nouns and the first word of a com­plete sen­tence that it almost seems wrong to cap­i­tal­ize sin­gle words and phrases. Do it anyway.

When do I use peri­ods and when do I leave bul­leted items with­out end punctuation?

RULE: Use peri­ods after inde­pen­dent clauses, depen­dent clauses, or long phrases that are dis­played on sep­a­rate lines in a list. Example:

In this project, the equip­ment shall con­sist of:

  • Three hor­i­zon­tal cen­trifu­gal pumps with design tem­per­a­ture of 100 degrees F.
  • Three elec­tric motors, in accor­dance with Appendices II and IIA.
  • Three steel base frames.

RULE: Use peri­ods after short phrases that are essen­tial to the gram­mat­i­cal com­plete­ness of the state­ment intro­duc­ing the list. Example:

There are a num­ber of tags used in HTML, including:

  • Image tags.
  • Background tags.
  • Paragraph tags.

RULE: It’s not nec­es­sary to use peri­ods after short phrases or sin­gle words in a list, if the intro­duc­tory state­ment is gram­mat­i­cally com­plete (see below) or if the listed items are like those on an inven­tory sheet or a shop­ping list. Example:

The soft­ware in this price range offers many excel­lent features:

  • Windows 9x and up
  • Audio pro­nun­ci­a­tions
  • Rebate
  • Tutorial

RULE: When one item con­tains a com­plete sen­tence, punc­tu­ate all bul­leted items as though they were com­plete sen­tences: cap­i­tal­ize the begin­ning words and use a period at the end of each item. Example:

You will not be accepted if you have been diag­nosed with:

  • Arthritis.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Asthma or some aller­gies. Please list your aller­gies and give date of last flare-up.

RECOMMENDATION: If you’re cre­at­ing a long doc­u­ment full of bul­leted items, you may choose to be con­sis­tent and end each item with a period.

RECOMMENDATION: Please avoid using the fol­low­ing format:

We strongly rec­om­mend that you

  • fin­ish the project by Friday, January 23;
  • place every­thing you’ve turned in to date, plus this assign­ment, on a floppy disk; and
  • label all file pages (and the disk itself) with your des­ig­nated code.
  • label all file pages (and the disk itself) with your des­ig­nated code.

If you write a lot of reports and doc­u­ments with lists, you’ll always do well if you fol­low the guide­lines above, rec­og­niz­ing the need of the reader to grasp infor­ma­tion quickly and eas­ily. It’s all about readability.


The Chicago Manual of Style.
The Gregg Reference Manual(Sabin).
The Copyeditor’s Handbook (Einsohn).


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