In academic writing, all papers must follow strict formatting rules and structures. Essays, research papers, term papers, dissertations, theses, or reports are written in APA, MLA, Harvard, Chicago, or Oxford, among other formatting styles. With the structure comes some rules to maintain, and one of these rules is how to incorporate lists when writing.
Lists are ideal even when writing in prose, even if they abruptly disrupt the structure, design, length, and sometimes grammar of the written piece. They can be integrated into the prose (horizontally or run-in) or set vertically depending on the amount of information and its intended purpose.
What is in a list? You may ask.
A list makes your work easy to read without struggling to identify the main points. They make your format recognizable and your reading digestible.
If you use the right punctuation, syntax, and grammar and stick to the formatting style requirements, you are good at including lists in an essay or any academic writing task. However, you must know that you can only use a vertical list if there are more than three items, and anything less than that should not be listed and should follow the general sentence formatting rules.
Let us see how everything works and how to present a list in an essay.
You can format lists differently, provided they are parallel and consistent. In academic writing, there are two types of lists: run-in lists and vertical lists, and let us expound on the meaning and formats of each.
A run-in list is a list that is included as part of the general text, and they are laid out in line in running prose. It is a horizontal list that entails listing the items as part of the sentences in a paragraph using the correct punctuation. In APA, you can use seriation within sentences where an item in the sentence is preceded by a number or letter enclosed in two brackets, followed by a semicolon, and has a period at the end of the sentence. Let’s look at an example:
Based on post-world cup analysis research conducted by sports researchers, it emerged that (a) it united more people than ever; (b) created a sense of belongingness for football fans; (c) broke the fear caused by the Covid-19; (d) helped entertain millions of fans; (e) contributed to Qatar’s GDP.
You can introduce run-in lists through a complete sentence followed by a list of items preceded by a colon while a comma separates each item. Let us look at an example:
Every camper and hiker should be introduced to basic survival skills training so that they can: make a fire without flint or matches, forage food, track and navigate the wild, make simple tools, and manage emergency scenarios.
On the same note, the list can also be part of a sentence where each item is separated by numbers or letters in paragraphs. Let us look at an illustration.
Kids should train for and participate in triathlons because it: (1) keeps them active, (2) teaches them to set and meet goals, (3) helps them develop motor skills, and (4) develops strength, endurance, and balance.
Vertical lists are laid out vertically and can be ordered and labeled with numbers or letters or bulleted (unordered).
A vertical list is preceded by a complete sentence that gives a brief introduction or overview of the items or points in a list. Vertical lists do not necessarily have to be bulleted, nor do you require to put a punctuation mark at the end of each item in the entry.
Making a camping fire is a fun process that involves the following:
When your lead-in sentence is complete, and all the entries comprise complete sentences, you can use a final period at the end of each item in the list.
When you have a long list that cannot be presented in a single sentence, use vertical lists that are punctuated as a sentence. You can use this structure when the phrases have internal punctuation, or the reader might have trouble getting the gist of your written text.
If you have a complex vertical list, you can format it like an outline. You can then use numbers or letters to itemize the items in the list. The lead-in or introductory sentence should be a complete sentence followed by a colon.
Vertical lists help improve readability by breaking blocks of prose or chunks. They also help the readers to skim the text with ease, and they also highlight important content. Finally, they can be used as a signpost or to cue the readers about the following content, especially when listing subheadings or sections.
Ensure that you observe the nuanced rules for punctuating vertical lists for every formatting style you use to write an academic paper.
Even though lists can disrupt the formatting, grammar, and structure of an essay or a written piece, they are sometimes the necessary evil that makes such papers organized. Imagine reading a prose format text that has stuffed a list of items in a sentence, and you must read, interpret, or internalize. It would be a tough call, won’t it? That’s where lists come in. Lists are meant to get your reader’s attention so they can decode your message on the go and off the bat. You can use lists in an essay when:
That said, you must adhere to parallelism and punctuation to the T when creating a list in an essay or any academic writing task. Besides, you must pay attention to the general formatting guidelines for the respective formatting style you are writing the paper.
When assigned to write an essay or research paper in MLA, APA, Chicago, or Harvard formatting styles and you need to make a list, you should only proceed when it is unavoidable. Combine the list with good transition words, and you will make comprehensive, coherent, and cogent paragraphs that make your writing stand out.
That said, many ways to list items in an essay include using a numbered list, bulleted list, lettered list, and running text lists. Even though these means are allowed, you can only use lists sparingly in your writing.
Bulleted lists are a preference when using lists that do not communicate hierarchical, superiority, priority, or chronological order. Although sparingly, you can use bulleted points in academic writing when:
If opportunity allows, you are highly encouraged to use bullet lists in a research paper to make it readable as long as there is no condition to the list. If you have lists that are not too long, have them as separate paragraphs. You can also introduce short bulleted lists as titled sections. But if you have longer items to list and want to be thorough in your listing, use a bulleted list.
Before introducing the bullet list, ensure that you have an opening sentence explaining the list's contents. The introduction should give your readers a head start on the items, so they are not confused as they read.
When including the bulleted lists, indent them at least one inch or one tab stop from the left margin. The lists should be double or single, depending on the entire document's general spacing.
You cannot use a bulleted list in an academic essay or paper when:
The use of bullet points is strictly prohibited in these circumstances. You can use bullet lists in quotations, as we share later in this article.
Related Reading: Transition words and phrases to use in a university essay.
Like bullet point lists, you can use numbered lists that are similar, only that the latter has numbers instead of bullet points. Besides, there are also rules to observe when using either.
Most formatting styles, such as MLA and APA, allow seriation (use of numbered or ordered lists). However, this should be done sparingly as well. Overusing the numbered lists will make your paper look more like an outline than an academic piece written in prose.
You should use numbered lists when describing a series of events or a logical arrangement of items. Every list begins with numerals and ends in a full stop/ period.
If you are integrating the list in prose, you need to use colons and bracketed numbers.
The main steps of taking a shower include: (1) getting your clothes off, (2) getting into the bathroom; (3) activating the shower and adjusting to the right temperature, and (4) taking a bath.”
Notice that you must open and close the parentheses and not use just one bracket.
You can also use a semicolon and bracketed numbers if your pieces of evidence have a comma in the middle, and Semicolons are used to separate the elements. Alternatively, you can make a vertical list rather than a run-in text to better capture readers' attention.
You can also list items by specifying their order. This is the first, second, third…nth.
Lettered lists are like numbered lists in every aspect. Listing things in an essay using letters and brackets entails using lowercase letters within parentheses preceding the items in the list, followed by semicolons before introducing the next item. The second last item will have the semicolon and the word “and” or “or” before introducing the last item and finishing with a period.
The main steps of taking a shower include: (a) getting your clothes off, (b) getting into the bathroom; (c) activating the shower and adjusting to the right temperature, and (d) taking a bath.
Ever heard of the famous Oxford comma? You can use it in a sentence to introduce a list of items in an essay within run-in texts, and the serial comma precedes the conjunction.
When you plan a hike, you must pick a safe destination, get good gear, have the right attitude, prepare well, and plan your trip.
APA formatting style, used primarily in social sciences, allows using both numbered and bulleted lists. You should consult with your instructor whether to include lists in your essay or piece of assignment for clarity so that you submit work that meets instructions.
In APA style, you can list with bullets if you want to separate points in a sentence. In this case, the list is not preceded by a colon, and the bulleted list is considered part of the sentence. This option is usually great when writing complex sentences that might be difficult to digest without punctuation. If the bulleted list contains phrases rather than sentences, there is no need for punctuation.
As an example:
The project planning team has assessed the suitability of the location and has already completed
In APA 7, using numbered lists is encouraged for complete sentences or paragraphs in a series. You can, for instance, use a numbered list when describing steps in a procedure or including itemized recommendations.
In APA 7, you have two options for punctuating bulleted phrases: to include no punctuation after each list item and after the last list item or to include commas or semicolons, as appropriate, after each list item and final punctuation at the end of the list. Example:
The project planning team has assessed the suitability of the location and has already completed
Here is an example of a seriated list in APA
A survey should include (a) clear wording, (b) convenient access, (c)concise direction, and (d) simple language.
If you list three or more items, use a serial comma or Oxford comma before the last item and the conjunction “and’ or “or.” If you have one or more clauses that contain commas, you should use a semicolon instead of a comma to separate every clause.
Also Read: Signposting strategies for essays and papers.
In MLA style, primarily used in humanities subjects, there are many ways to integrate a list.
First, you can integrate a list into your essay's prose or paragraphs. In this case, the lists are introduced by the text.
E.g., “We can praise Baldwin for his astute sociological observations, crafting meticulous sentences, and using metropolitan dialogue.”
Instead of using commas, you can also list using a colon.
For example, “Baldwin is known, primarily, for three reasons: astute sociological observations, meticulous crafting of sentences, and using decidedly metropolitan dialogue.”
You can also introduce a vertical list in MLA either as a complete sentence or a list that continues the sentence that introduced it.
If you introduce a list by a complete sentence in the body, it should end in a colon first, then introduce the list as complete sentences or fragments. In this case, the first letter of each item in the list must be capitalized if they are a complete sentence. Besides, you should adhere to the punctuation rules for sentences.
Having gone through the report, four pertinent questions arise:
You can also stratify some sentences in your MLA-format paper into a vertical list, and the lists will be considered as one single sentence.
In this case, since it is a sentence continuation, there is no need to include a colon before the list. Instead, begin the sentence as usual and format each item on a separate line.
Every item in the list ends in a semicolon. The second last item should have a semicolon and the word “or” or the word “and. The final item should have a closing punctuation of the sentence.
Several schools are reconsidering their physical security setups by
If you can avoid using numbered lists in MLA, please do so without hesitation.
You can use bulleted lists to format paraphrased passages from a source. You need to use a signal phrase or citation in the sentence before the text. For example:
“Red and yellow are the best colors to decorate a restaurant because they induce feelings of hunger, energize customers to order more food, and prevent patrons from lingering in the dining area once they have finished their meals.” (Jackson, 2009)
This can be paraphrased as:
It is profit-oriented to decorate a restaurant with yellow and red colors. Jackson (2009) suggests
A bulleted list can also function as a block quote, without quotation marks, if taken directly from the source. However, you must introduce the source with a signal phrase, and the quote should be single-spaced. If you change any words, you need to use brackets. You should also include the citation in the list item after the period after the last thing in the list.
Sticking to the same original passage, the right way to present this would be:
In her marketing study, Jackson highlights the benefits of decorating a restaurant with red and yellow color schemes citing that these colors,
You can also use the bulleted list to quote individual list items directly and paraphrase some items. Again, you must use the signal phrase or citation in the paragraph preceding the list. You should also include quotation marks and citations with the quotes in verbatim. Taking the same example:
When it comes to restaurant décor, the findings of a marketing study by Jackson (2009) suggest that the colors red and yellow:
Dos and Don’ts when Using Lists
As you strive to perfect listing items or things in an essay or paper, there are some things you should do and others that you should not do. Even though we have listed them as part of this guide, in the previous sections, let us gather them together for clarity. Below are some things you should do and others not to do with lists in academic writing:
Again, we insist that using numbered or bulleted items or points in academic writing should only be made when unavoidable.
The rationale is that formal academic writing entails synthesizing information and critically presenting arguments to explore in-depth topics, which can only be achieved with uninterrupted prose: complete sentences and paragraphs.
Capitalizing the items in a list depends on whether you are writing complete sentences or the list is part of a sentence in a paragraph. You can capitalize the first letter of the first word of the items in the list if you are writing a complete sentence where you don’t need a semicolon but a full stop or period at the end of each item.
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