Talking Typography: Bullets & Bulleted Lists


At times, you might be concerned if using bullets is the correct way to provide your readers with information. There are a few different ways to determine whether you should use them, but one of the easiest ways is to learn about organizing lists in general. With that being said, let’s look at the three big players when it comes to using lists: the numbered order listed, lettered lists and bulleted lists.

Using Numbered Ordered Lists

Ordered lists are generally used to denote the steps in a project. If you wanted to teach someone how to tie their shoes, you would present the idea as such:

1. Cross lace A and lace B

2. Loop lace A under lace B, pull tight

3. Create loop with lace A

4. Wrap lace B around lace A, creating a loop

5. Pull lace B through create loop, pull tight

This creates a step-by step project that makes it easy for the reader to follow from start to finish. If you use bullets in a step-by-step project, you are likely to create unnecessary confusion. Of course, you can also apply this to providing information to your readers as well when it is a chronologically sensitive matter, such as a synopsis of an Old English heroic epic poem:

An extremely brief synopsis of Beowulf:

1. Grendel attacks Hrothgar's mead halls.

2. Beowulf shows up and offers his services to Hrothgar.

3. Beowulf kills Grendel.

4. Beowulf kills Grendel's mother.

5. Beowulf becomes king of the Geats.

6. Beowulf fights a dragon.

7. Beowulf dies.

As you can see, using bullets in this specific case would not provide the reader with important chronological information about the story of Beowulf, and there is a chance that your readers might think that the information is interchangeable within the list.

Alphabetical Ordered Lists

While there are not many rules for using alphabetical ordered lists, generally these are used to denote different options a reader may have when faced with a choice. For example, if you were telling a reader about the different kinds of covering for the exterior of their house, your list might look like this:

A) Vinyl siding

B) Aluminum Siding

C) Asphalt Shingles

D) Wooden Shingles

E) Stucco

This kind of list implies that the reader can only choose one of the options, and not all of the options from the list. Using a bulleted list might imply that you could have any combination of the five different exterior coverings for your house, and that is not exactly something you'd want to convey to your reader! Of course, some people still hold true to the fact that numerically ordered and alphabetically ordered lists are interchangeable, so it is best to use your judgment when you decide between the two.

Why Bulleted Lists?

In typography, bullets are the little black circles (•) that denote unordered information. Bulleted lists are generally used to provide a user with chunks of information related to a greater topic. For example, if you wanted to talk about the merits of a customer using your yard care service, you might provide a list that looks like this.

With GreenCare lawn service, you can expect:

• Custom lawn care detailed to fit your lawn.

• Professionals with years of experience in lawn care.

• Packages designed to fit your budget and several payment options.

Bullets can come in handy at other times as well. When you comprise a list of objects (or thoughts) within a project (or idea), you can easily showcase this with bullets. For example, if you are explaining the different parts of a blimp, it might look like this:

Parts of a Blimp:

• Envelope;

• Gondola;

• Propeller.

If you are providing your readers with information about a specific topic that does not have any chronological significance, such as a look at the factors that attributed to the success of the ancient empires.

Factors that contributed to Ancient Rome's success:

• Aqueducts allowed Roman farmers to grow larger fields of crops.

• Romans largely embraced technological advances, including military weapons.

• Rome boasted a strong, centralized military.

Of course, this applies to more than just a look at historical subjects. When providing information to people in the form of a presentation, bullets are useful for grouping together individual thoughts within your core subjects.

Proper Sentence Structure

Whenever possible, use complete sentences in a bulleted list; this includes capitalization and punctuation. However, this does not mean that the sentences need to be long-winded. Generally, when someone is using a bulleted list, they are trying to explain something quickly rather than providing more information than the reader would need to learn the basics of a topic. However, when providing a list of items in a project (such as the blimp example above), it is common to end each bulleted item with a semicolon (;) except for the last item, which is ended with a period (.).

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