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Keep list items in a single list

Keep lists in sentences together.

Business writers tend to break up the lists in their writing with words such as "In addition . . ." or "as well as," as in this example:

As well as Singapore, we have a growing customer base in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Europe.

This is one list. The category is "places we have a growing customer base." The items are "Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Europe." The author could make better lists in two ways:

  1. Put all of the areas into one list: "We have a growing customer base in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Europe."

  2. If Singapore had just been explained as a place where the company has a growing customer base, make a new category out of the list: "other places where we have a growing customer base." In that case, the sentence would follow the explanation about Singapore and read, "We also have a growing customer base in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Europe."

In this example, breaking up the list actually creates confusion:

The coating is abrasion and impact resistant. It will not crack or peel.

The reader is left wondering whether it "will not crack or peel" because it is "abrasion and impact resistant" or whether "will not crack or peel" is one feature and "is abrasion and impact resistant" is another. The writer should have written this:

The coating resists abrasion and impacts and will not crack or peel. [Notice that the weak "coating is resistant" is changed to "coating resists."]

or

Because the coating resists abrasion and impacts, it will not crack or peel.

However, the sentence isn't really precise, so it needs to be reworded. After all, a coating can't resist an abrasion; it has no will of its own. This would be still better:

The coating will not crack or peel from abrasion or impacts.

The writer may feel that two parts of a list belong together more than a third, so he or she puts the two parts in one construction and leaves the third dangling. Avoid doing that. Even if two seem to be a little more closely aligned with each other, try to put all in one list. In this example, the list is broken up:

The finance department also uses Microsoft Excel and Lotus Notes and they use the NT computer platform.

The three items are in one category: things the finance department uses. The first two are software programs and the third is the operating system platform. However, they are still all "things the finance department uses." The sentence should be rewritten to make it clearer:

The finance department also uses Microsoft Excel, Lotus Notes, and the NT computer platform.

If the writer really feels the first two should be separate from the third, then he or she should rewrite the sentence telling the reader what category the first two are in and what category the third is in:

The finance department uses two software programs (Microsoft Excel and Lotus Notes) and the NT computer platform.

If that feels too broken up, the writer could streamline it by eliminating the parentheses:

The finance department uses Microsoft Excel and Lotus Notes software and the NT computer platform.

Keep lists in paragraphs together.

Avoid breaking up lists among sentences in paragraphs. This is an example of a paragraph that contains a single list broken apart, making it less clear:

Tom asked me to help Sue set up her own Bastion account and transfer the assets to Capitalmark. For this purpose, the Bastion IRA Application is enclosed. The first step is to transition the Custodial Bastion IRA, in both of your names, to a Bastion IRA, only in Sue’s name. Also enclosed is the Letter of Authorization. This letter, signed by you, releases the custodial ownership of the funds into Sue’s sole ownership.

After you have filled out those forms, open the Bastion account with the other two forms. Capitalmark Bastion IRA Application will open a Bastion IRA at Capitalmark Investments for Sue. Then, the Capitalmark Transfer Form will transfer Sue’s account from Bastion to Capitalmark.

To make it easier for both of you, I have completed the forms as much as possible; please review them for accuracy. Sign and initial each form where indicated. Also, please complete the yellow highlighted areas (Sue’s employment and so on).

This text is difficult to follow because

  1. The lists are embedded in the paragraph instead of being separated out.
  2. The lists are broken up through use of different formats.
  3. The two separate lists are not clearly defined. One list is the forms Sue must fill out. The second is the process she needs to go through to fill out the forms.

To make this writing clear, the writer needs to identify the lists, open each with a clear statement of the contents, and clearly mark each item with a consistent format. This is the rewritten version:

Tom asked me to help you and Sue set up her own Bastion account and transfer the assets to Capitalmark. I have enclosed four forms, filled out as much as possible. You and Sue should complete these three steps:
  1. Review each form for accuracy.

  2. Sign and initial each form where indicated. You must sign two forms and Sue must sign three. My instructions for signing follow this list of steps.

  3. Complete the yellow, highlighted areas (Sue's employment and other information).

Following are descriptions of the four enclosed forms indicating which you and Sue must sign.

  1. The Bastion IRA Application. The first step is to transition the Custodial Bastion IRA, now in both of your names, to a Bastion IRA in Sue’s name only. This form will allow us to do that. You and Sue must both sign this form.

  2. The Letter of Authorization. This letter you sign releases the custodial ownership of the funds into Sue’s sole ownership. Sue does not need to sign it.

  3. The Capitalmark Bastion IRA Application. This form will open a Capitalmark Investments account for Sue. She must sign the application form.

  4. The Capitalmark Transfer Form. This form will transfer Sue’s account from Bastion to Capitalmark. Since this is a form placing her funds from the standard Bastian IRA into the Capitalmark Investments account, she must also sign this form.

If you have any questions as you complete the forms, call me.

[contact information and closing here]

Notice these parts of the rewritten lists:

The first list

  1. The first list opens with an introduction and statement of the contents of the first list: "You and Sue should complete these three steps."
  2. The list contains a specific number: three.
  3. The list has a name for the types of items: "steps."
  4. Each item in the list is numbered.
  5. The items flow into two or more lines, so the author has inserted blank lines between them.

The second list

  1. The second list opens with an introduction and statement of the contents of the list: "Following are descriptions of the four enclosed forms indicating which you and Sue must sign."
  2. The list contains a specific number: four.
  3. The list has a name for the types of items: "forms."
  4. Each item in the list is numbered.
  5. The items are longer, so the author has inserted blank lines between them.