Monday, November 5, 2007

Let me count the ways

Do you love lists? If not, you should! Lists are a powerful tool to add to your writing arsenal. They can be used to indicate important elements of a well-written paper: argument, examples, or progression from one idea to another. But remember—with great power comes great responsibility. Thus, if you’re not careful, you can use lists in ineffective ways. For example, they can be vague, punctuated incorrectly, or used too often, which will minimize the effect. Here are some things to know about the power of the list.

Series versus Displayed Lists
First, consider if you would like to use a list within your paragraph or set off from your paragraph. When you use a list within your paragraph, it is called a “series.” When you use a list set off from your paragraph it is called a “displayed list.”

A series is an effective tool to use within your paragraph: it will help you remember the order of your points, it will let the reader know you have thought about the order in which the points should be presented, and it will provide structure and flow to your argument or research.

A displayed list provides slightly different emphasis than a series:
  • draws attention to the list
  • sets the list apart from the rest of the paper
  • clearly displays each item

Series and displayed lists are so different, is it any surprise that they have different punctuation rules? I think not! Read on, brave list-er!

I [Heart] Punctuation

How to Punctuate a Series
1) To introduce your series, you can use a colon or a dash (see our October 25 blog entry for everything you need to know about the dash—and more).

2) Use a comma to separate each item and an “and” before the last item.

3) If you use commas within the items in your series, use a semicolon to separate each item.

4) You don’t have to capitalize the items in your list unless they are proper nouns.

I would like to download the following songs: “My Humps” by The Black Eyed Peas, “Do it Well” by Jennifer Lopez, the new cover of “Imagine” by Jack Johnson, an album by Glenn Miller, and Green Day’s first single.

5) You can add numbers to your lists. All the above rules still apply.

After you read this blog you should be able to do the following: (1) integrate series and displayed lists into your paper, (2) make an educated choice about how to best punctuate your list, and (3) wow the masses with your clarity of thought.

6) You can use the dash to embed a small series within a sentence.

All of the runaway cats—tabbies, calicos, and gingham—surrounded the abandoned house.

How to Punctuate a Displayed List
1. Use a complete sentence punctuated with a colon to introduce to your displayed list.

2. You can use dashes, bullets, or numbers followed by a period to introduce each item in your list

3. You only need to use periods after the items you list if you write complete sentences.

These are a list of my favorite things:
--Raindrops on roses.
--Whiskers on kittens.

After—Corrected Version
These are a list of my favorite things:
--bright copper kettles
--warm wooly mittens

4. Be aware of what directly follows your displayed list. Is it a new paragraph, or part of the same paragraph?

List User, Beware!

Now that you know the nuances between the punctuation of a series and a displayed list, there are only a few things to keep in mind.

“One of these things is not like the other”
It is best to make the elements in your list sound the same; in other words, the phrases should include the same type of elements (just nouns or a verb + noun combo?). If the items include the same elements, it will make your paper easier to read and get your point across.

If I were trapped on a deserted island, I would want to make sure I: (1) had a knife, (2) had some water, (3) brought my dog, and (4) was found.

After—Corrected Version
If I were trapped on a deserted island, I would want to make sure that I had brought the following: (1) a knife, (2) some water, (3) my dog, and (4) a way to be found.

Breaking up is hard to do…even for lists
You can use lists in your sentence without making it into a series or displayed list. In fact, in certain cases you should avoid them. How do you know when its best to use a list? In general, you are safe to use a “series” or “displayed list” once you already have a complete phrase. Don’t break your sentence up right in the middle of a phrase. Note that these sentences below do not need to have any punctuation to introduce their list.

My favorite heroes and sidekicks are Batman and Robin, from the original comic book series; Chip and Dale, from the Disney Afternoon; and Inspector Gadget and Penny, from the cartoon series. My perfect day would consist of sleeping in, hanging out with friends, and a sunset stroll on the beach.

Phew! That should be enough to keep generating some powerful lists. Wield your weapon well.

Good luck.

No comments: