punctuation of bullet lists

Punctuation of Bullet Lists

Punctuating Bullet Lists is Widely Misunderstood

Everyone uses bullet lists (vertical lists in which the order of listed items doesn’t matter and items are preceded by the same mark, usually a “•”). They’ve become increasingly popular as data and content explode. Business writers rely heavily on lists to grab readers’ attention and convey information quickly. Despite their utility, writers often ignore or misunderstand proper punctuation of bullet lists. As an editor I’ve witnessed first-hand how this problem regularly embarrasses business writers. Incorrect punctuation of bullet lists is a distraction and bad for readability and your message.

Here are some simple rules to help you get it right.

Intro Statement

How should you punctuate the transition from introductory text (lead-in statement) to the list—with a comma, a colon, or nothing? If your lead-in text is a complete sentence, use a colon. If the lead-in is a sentence fragment, you can omit the colon, or use it. It’s up to you—either is okay. Never use a comma between your lead-in and the bulleted items.


Should the first word of bullet-list items be capitalized? As a general rule, yes. Especially when the lead-in transition is a colon. Also, when any of your list items are complete sentences, capitalize the first letter of all items in the list. Exception: if all list items are one or two words or short sentence fragments, it’s ok to not capitalize the first letter—it’s a style choice. My preference is to always capitalize the first letter of all list items for the sake of consistency; also, without a capital letter to start list items look unfinished or out of place.

End Punctuation

How are list items punctuated at the end? It depends. Whether to place periods or other terminal punctuation at the end of bullet-listed statements is widely misunderstood, but it’s not that complicated:

  • When all list items are single words or short sentence fragments (2 to 4 words)—and it feels like an inventory—it is common and acceptable to omit periods at the end.
  • When list items are complete sentences, or any one of the list’s fragments is followed by a complete sentence, or the list items each complete the introductory stem, then a period, question mark, or exclamation point should appear at the end of all list items.
  • If the list contains some sentence fragments and some complete sentences, the presence of the complete sentences means that all bullet items should end with a period (or other terminal punctuation). If the bullets all start with a capital letter and some of the items are more than a few words, all items should have the period at the end.
  • In a vertical bullet list, never use commas at the end. When the list items start with capital letters, don’t use semicolons after the items, or place conjunctions like “and” or “or” before the last item. Each list item should have either a period (or question mark or exclamation point) or nothing. Don’t place a period at the end of the last bullet if the other bullet items don’t have periods.
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage, a very reliable usage reference, however, does make an exception on the use of semi-colons noting:

“If you begin each item with a lowercase letter, put a semicolon at the end of each item, use and after the next-to-last item, and put a period after the last item.”


It’s very important that punctuation of each bullet item be consistent through the whole list. All list items should be punctuated the same way. They either all start with a capital letter, or they don’t. They all have terminal punctuation, or none do. Never mix some items with periods and some without, or only some starting with capital letters.

The structure/style of each list item should be the same. For example, to the extent possible, all list items should be either full sentences or fragments. While a mix is okay, it should be avoided when possible (sometimes it’s just not possible). If one list item starts with a noun, all others should start the same way.

Examples — Correct Punctuation of Bullet Lists

Below is a list that calls for capital letters and periods—all items are complete sentences:

I have traveled to the other side of the planet and seen wonderful things:

  • Magical peoples instruct foreigners on remarkable traditions.
  • Striking natural beauty can fill your mind with awe.
  • Unique history and culture reveals the richness of humanity and instills respect for others.
  • Far-flung governing institutions have more in common than first appearances suggest.

Below is an example of a bullet list that doesn’t require capital letters or terminal punctuation—all items are short sentence fragments:

The parties are interested in determining whether the services can be:

  • provided efficiently
  • delivered affordably
  • monitored effectively
  • administered securely

The same list could also properly appear as follows:

The parties are interested in determining whether the services can be:

  • Provided efficiently
  • Delivered affordably
  • Monitored effectively
  • Administered securely

Applying Garner’s rule, this list would appear as follows—items start with lowercase letters:

The parties are interested in determining whether the services can be:

  • provided efficiently;
  • delivered affordably;
  • monitored effectively; and
  • administered securely.

Under Garner’s rule, the first list above is properly presented this way:

I have traveled to the other side of the planet and seen wonderful things, including:

  • magical peoples instructing foreigners on remarkable traditions;
  • striking natural beauty that fills your mind with awe;
  • unique history and culture revealing the richness of humanity and instilling respect for others; and
  • far-flung governing institutions with more in common than first appearances suggest.

These are basic guidelines for punctuation of bullet lists in business writing. To learn more, consult style and usage guides like The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and The Gregg Reference Manual.