Full stop, no stop, or what?
June 14, 2006 1:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I end a sentence that's a list item?

I'm creating some end user documentation for my work, and I have several processes delineated as numbered lists, like so:

1. Open Remedy
2. Choose the Update Employee Information form
3. Completely fill out the form
4. Click Save, note the ticket number


My question is, do there need to be periods at the end of these lines? The ones above are short, but I have several items that are at least a "real" sentence length - it seems awkward to not end them with a period, but on the other hand in a list format it doesn't seem quite right, either, if that makes sense. Any advice?
posted by pdb to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Those are sentences, just short (commanding) ones. If it's awkward for you not to end a sentence with a period, then stick periods at the end of each of your lines.
posted by wanderingmind at 1:23 PM on June 14, 2006

Yes. Periods at the end of each sentence.
posted by occhiblu at 1:24 PM on June 14, 2006

These are all sentences. I would put a period at the end of each. I would, however, either replace the comma in #4 with a semi-colon or add the word "and" after it, to keep it more sentence-y.

(I mention this not because of the details in question, but because #4 as written starts to tread into a more terse, less sentence-like territory, which I think you'd want to generally avoid if you're "full-stopping.")
posted by TonyRobots at 1:25 PM on June 14, 2006

Whatever you do, don't put a period at the end of anything that isn't a real sentence. The above list looks fine, but it can be tricky if you have longer items.

I try to be as consistent as possible. You could take the shorter phrases and lengthen them to full sentences. Now everything can take a period and it looks neater. Likewise, you could try to shorten longer items.
posted by Alison at 1:25 PM on June 14, 2006

It varies from publisher to publisher, but a good rule is to keep it consistent within a list (or if you like, all lists in the document). So if one item needs a period, they all get it.
posted by theredpen at 1:26 PM on June 14, 2006

In this usage I usually have seen semicolons after each entry and a period after the last. Here is a Wiki article on the formatting of lists.


You could also use a period if each element was not dependent on the introduction.
posted by justkevin at 1:26 PM on June 14, 2006

Yes, periods. What you have is a procedure, and those are sentences, which require punctuation. If it were a bulleted list, there might be some argument for leaving off the dots (though I wouldn't).
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:27 PM on June 14, 2006

My personal favourite, The Chicago Manual of Style, has a nice set of Q&As on this subject.
posted by Captaintripps at 1:29 PM on June 14, 2006

Does your work have a standard style guide for technical documentation? It will cover this sort of question. If not, I would pick a technical writing style guide and simply go with it for the sake of internal consistency if nothing else.

Apple has a style guide here.

They suggest:
Lists (bulleted):
Punctuation within a list: List items that are fragments or that complete the thought started by the main clause have no period; list items that are complete sentences have a period.

Lists (numered):
Use sentence-style capitalization for each item and end each item with closing punctuation.
posted by GuyZero at 1:33 PM on June 14, 2006

No semicolons. That is not a list such as in the Wiki page; it's a procedure. Each item stands on its own and is a sentence. Oh, and do put the word "and" into #4.

The CMS link is to a discussion on a completely different use of numbering. What pdb is doing is technical writing, which is not something addressed in CMS.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:34 PM on June 14, 2006

With the exception of adding and, the Chicago Q&A says to do exactly the same thing you did Kirth.
posted by Captaintripps at 1:43 PM on June 14, 2006

During a technical writing class I took, lists like this were discussed and if it was proper to put a period at the end or not. There is no defined standard on this, however, it is important that once you pick period or no period you follow that decision throughout the entirety of the documentation. That is the most important part.

As for the period being present or not, I usually use them because I think it looks proper.
posted by chrisroberts at 1:43 PM on June 14, 2006

Consistency is most important. That said, I'd go with semicolons in the situation you describe (except for the last item, which would get a period).
posted by alms at 1:51 PM on June 14, 2006

As a teacher of technical writing I would say that it depends on whatever style convention you are working with and who's reading it. But chrisroberts is correct, consistency demonstrates competency either way. Even though three out of the four are technically complete sentences, given their brevity I would actually leave them out (and take out the comma as well), but that's not necessarily the correct way to do it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:53 PM on June 14, 2006

Does your work have a standard style guide for technical documentation?

My work doesn't even have any real documentation at this point. That's my struggle here - everything's ad-hoc, and I'm trying to create something out of nothing. I'm creating a process manual for new system users and trying to make it sound (and read) professional.

I want to, and have been asked to, establish some standards, but I want to make sure I'm establishing good ones. I've been consistently leaving off the period, because ending each bullet with a period makes things read as almost too conversational, if that makes sense.

Most of the things I'm creating are actual sentences, not like the brief ones above, so all this is good advice and I appreciate it.
posted by pdb at 2:22 PM on June 14, 2006

I want to, and have been asked to, establish some standards, but I want to make sure I'm establishing good ones.

Allow me to repeat myself: pick a professional technical writing style manual. Pick any of them. Then stick to it.

For bonus points, pick a large one which is suitable for throwing at cow-orkers who violate its rules.
posted by GuyZero at 2:25 PM on June 14, 2006

For bonus points, pick a large one which is suitable for throwing at cow-orkers who violate its rules.

But staplers are so much easier to huck across a room. :-)
posted by pdb at 2:27 PM on June 14, 2006

Use periods. Don't worry so much whether they're "actual sentences"; the important thing is consistency and a clean look (which periods provide).

And what GuyZero said.
posted by languagehat at 2:31 PM on June 14, 2006

pdb, there are no bullets in your question. That's not nitpicking, because bulleted lists operate on entirely different rules from numbered lists (or procedures or instruction sets).

Bulleted lists are not in any particular order. The third bullet item does not have to come after the second one, etc.

Numbered lists are presented with the items (or in the case of a procedure, the steps) in order. The step numbered 1 must be done before 2, and so on.

Captaintrips, if you're referring to the CMS topic "Vertical Lists, Bullets," then no, it doesn't say to do what I said, unless you mean this:
No periods are required at the end of entries unless at least one entry is a complete sentence, in which case a period is necessary at the end of each entry.
Since the topic is talking about both bulleted and numbered lists, this is not appropriate for numbered steps in a procedure. Procedures should always be complete sentences (so no semicolons at the end), written in school English, with correct punctuation. That's so the instructions will be as clear as possible to as many users as possible.

pdb, the Chicago Manual of Style is a fine resource, but it is a newspaper style guide. Newspapers' requirements differ from those of technical documentation, and there are several points of divergence between newspaper style and usual practice in tech writing.

The Apple style guide linked above is good as far as it goes, but is sketchy. Microsoft's style manul is more comprehensive (although I don't like a number of their choices). Most big tech corporations have a style guide. See if someone you know at Philips or Agfa or Agilent or wherever can let you borrow one to read (not to copy).
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:00 PM on June 14, 2006

Or (oops) it's a university style guide, not a newspaper one. Still, the needs are different from tech writers' needs.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:17 PM on June 14, 2006

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