Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dots must be stopped!

A row has broken out on Twitter (hard to believe, I know. Twitter folk are normally so placid). The blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of the Guardian Style Guide, which, with all the sensitivity of Liam Stacey, has provocatively declared that bullet points should always end with full stops:
@caimin: Full stop at the end of a bullet point?
@guardianstyle: Yes. Every time. Like this.
@AngrySubEditor: I disagree. If it's not a sentence, it has no right to claim a full stop. Treat them like headlines and captions.
@johnemcintyre: There go abbreviations.
@AngrySubEditor: Points in abbreviations are falling out of favour. Who writes N.A.T.O.?
@SnoozeInBrief: Rare to see them in pronounceable acronyms; less rare in say U.S.A. Still OTT though.
@caffyrelf: Woo! Fight! *pom poms*. I think US English uses full stops more than UK.
Luckily for me, I can usually impose whatever style I want. On the rare occasions when it's someone else's call, house style strangely seems to start looking like my style even when it's officially something different. And my house style is not to punctuate bullet points.

To me, they're part of the furniture, like picture captions and headlines, or, in another context, roadsigns and advertising slogans. Those don't take full stops, even if they're complete sentences, although they can take question marks. There's also my own subconscious snobbery, which seems to be telling me that all writing should resemble either a newspaper story or a novel, in which the correct form for text is the paragraph. Bullet points, on the other hand, are the calling cards of the junior marketing executive's PowerPoint presentation, Slide 3 of which usually reads like this:
  • SWOT analysis.
  • Leveraging innovative marketing solutions.
  • Optimised EBITDA. 
  • Globalized outreach.
Slide 4, of course, features a picture of a cricketer or baseball player with the caption: “Working here should always be a SLOG!!!”, preferably in a hideous font, italicised, in at least three colours. At this point, holding down your lunch is usually a higher priority than wondering whether the full stops are necessary.

I'll admit I have left them in when the author has written bullet points that are mini-essays in themselves, but such pieces are usually beyond rescue already.
The admirable John McIntyre concluded it was a “pointless discussion” (yes I got the joke too), and in a sense, he's right. Unlike the arguments about 'imply' vs 'infer', there isn't a wrong belief that needs to be countered. It's a question of style, which ultimately becomes a question of personal preference.

But that doesn't make the discussion irrelevant. One of the beauties of Twitter is that it brings together people with similar interests who can share ideas. None of us are megalomaniacs trying to impose our irrational linguistic prejudices on the rest of the world; we just want to promote a culture of clarity and graceful expression through the written word*. I've read hundreds of books and papers that were beyond reproach in terms of their correct English, but were still ugly, unreadable or unbearably dull. Correct vocabulary, grammar and punctuation are not ends in themselves. 

So, here's my rule for the smallest glyph on your keyboard. It has two functions only:
As a full stop or period, ending a sentence in body text
As a decimal point
I'll also use it as a marker between lower-case initials (i.e. and e.g. are the only common ones), but it's unnecessary and confusing for abbreviations, where it can be confused with a full stop (see SnoozeInBrief's use of U.S.A. above).

Moral: Using full stops in bullet points is just dotty.

*This goal will be achieved as soon as EVERYONE AGREES WITH ME.


  1. Bullet points can be long as well as short (the name is perhaps misleading). If it's more than one sentence, it looks very odd to have a full point at the end of the first sentence, then nothing at the end of the second or final sentence.

  2. Tastes differ, and, while not sharing your preference, I do not disparage it. Besides, you called me "admirable," and it would be wrong to question your judgment.

  3. Ah, but you didn't cover my occasional preference: the semicolon. I like to use the semi because (if I'm honest) I usually write long sentences that require commas, but if you're someone who's mastered brevity maybe a comma would suffice.

    It goes like this: I write a long sentence, realize no one will read it, and then retrofit it into a bullet-point list. I know my audience's attention span is better captured by skimming than by actually reading, and if I have to compensate for that via formatting, I'll do it. So I'll end up writing something like:

    If we do not stop everything we are doing right this very instant and immediately implement my recommendations, especially the ones about me getting six weeks' vacation,

    * the software will be full of bugs, so full that all the servers will explode;
    * the wiring will go up in flames, and I know you lot haven't tested the fire-suppression system since 1997;
    * the basement of the entire building will become a fiery conflagration of biblical proportions; and
    * you can kiss your end-of-year bonus goodbye.

    In that case, the full stop is inappropriate, but some sort of punctuation needs to go there, if only to remind people that I know how to use it -- and for that purpose, certainly the semicolon is most appropriate. ;)

  4. Just as one writes "14-15 January" instead of "from 14-15 January," because the "from" and a "to" as well are implied in the number range, it seems that the semicolon and "and" before the last bullet are also implied in the structure of a list. If you're going to use them, why bother with the list format? Your example is already punctuated like a long sentence.

  5. I go for the semi-colon option generally (it works for numbered lists, too) -- this mostly in academic papers/journals. Definitely not full points.
    Agree with you about the awfulness of most PowerPoint presentations

  6. Nobody should use bullet points EVER. It's the Devil's own invention.

  7. Do what you like. But do it consistently.

    I disagree about the bullets. People like them - especially on websites where they are scanning for information.

  8. Why is punctuating bullets any different to punctuating running text? If it's a fragment, no need for a stop; if it's a sentence add the stop of your choice.
    Or am I missing the obvious?

  9. The moral drawn by you, "Using full stops in bullet points is just dotty," is not good as a universal rule. Chicago Manual, the gospel of US style, clearly mandates that all bulletted sentences in a list will take end dots even if one sentence is complete, otherwise not. To avoid putting unseemly dots after incomplete sentences, the complete sentence should be rephrased.
    At the same time, is there any way out for the observation made by David Marsh (April 4, 2012)?

  10. Bullet points are a plain-English godsend for making lists clear (better to have four bullets than one long sentence stuffed with the four separate points). This is especially so when writing for the internet and the short attention span that goes with it.

    If the list items are short, no punctuation is clearer; if they are longer, complete sentences, then full stops make more sense; if some are short and some are long, then some editing is probably in order.

  11. I was brought up to use a mid-point dot as a decimal point, with the use of a full stop in its place being an inferior convenience when using a typewriter. Hardly ever see it these day, mind.

  12. Hello. I realise that it's a bit late in the day but I've only just happened upon your site. I found it rather interesting. I was a grammar school boy and find my teeth frequently grating at the base use of both language and punctuation. In this discourse around full stops at the end of bullet points I spotted one of my own nagging doubts. Sabrina mentioned "six weeks' vacation" with an apostrophe. Now, I have a thing about apostrophes, in particular their misuse. But perhaps you can offer assistance in this specific example. The “six weeks” in question do not belong to the “vacation” surely? Nor, for that matter, does the “vacation” belong to the “six weeks”. So why the posessive form? Are the six weeks not the duration for which the vacation extends? Therefore one could argue that the correct form should be "six weeks vacation" (my Word grammar checker just threw a wobbly and clearly doesn’t agree). If the plural of "foot" were "foots" instead of "feet", would my "six feet plank of wood" suddenly become "six foot's plank of wood"? I suspect not. Perhaps my analogy is off though.

    1. Sorry to be tardy in my reply, but here's my view:

      When I was trying to learn grammar, my invented rule was that “apostrophe s” replaces “the/a…of”. It's ugly in English, but French for example insists on it, as in “la plume de ma tante”. We call it a possessive, but it doesn't imply literal possession.

      So, in your example, “six week's vacation” is clearly “a vacation of six weeks”. I usually work these things out by changing a plural to a singular or vice versa, whereby you can clearly see that “one weeks vacation” is nonsense. Replace “a…of” with “apostrophe s” and you get “one week's vacation”, which is not only correct but, more importantly, common usage.

      Your other example is slightly different. English always uses the singular noun when it's part of a compound adjective, hence “nine-inch nails”, “multi-party democracy” and “six-foot plank”.

      Thanks for reading.