How to List Something in an Essay

Readers appreciate lists because they present information in an easy-to-digest manner. Given the increasing speed of communication – and the growing impatience of readers – lists are more commonplace today, even in essays. Remember that two fundamental English principles lead the way: Choose the simplest, most direct form of communication for the reader's sake and be consistent with your choices.

Decide whether your list should be integrated in a paragraph or set off with a colon, with each successive sentence or clause on a separate line. Short lists can often be contained within a paragraph. Here's an example: “She came to class without any of the tools the teacher required: acrylic paint, brushes, poster board and paper towels.”

Create a list with multiple lines when you have lengthier information to convey, either in sentence or clause form. Set off this information with a colon, capitalize the first letter of each item and single-space the list.

Use lists with multiple lines only when you have three or more lines of information. The conventions of English dictate that two points – no matter what the content – aren't significant enough to merit the kind of attention that lists generate among readers in the first place.

Create a parallel structure for your list, ensuring that the first word on each line is a noun, verb, adverb, gerund or infinitive phrase. Mixing structures will cause the reader to pause and stumble, defeating the purpose of creating a list.

Use bullet points to preface each item in your list. Bullet points have largely replaced numbers, but there is an exception here, too: Use a numbered list only if you plan to refer to certain information in the list later in the essay. In this case, a numbered list is a courtesy to your reader since referring to “point No. 6 on page 4” makes it easier for a reader to jump back than making him count the bullet points himself.

Keep end punctuation to a minimum with your list. In this way, too, lists have evolved over the years. Each line should be self-contained and not require a semi-colon or period at the end. The exception: long-winded sentences and those in which the list, read as a paragraph, make punctuation a necessity for clarity's sake. In this case, end most lines in the list with a semi-colon; end the second-to-last line with a semicolon followed by the word “and” and place a period at the end of the last line of the list.

  • “The law of threes” surfaces in other English conventions, too. For example, many teachers require at least three sources for research papers and some essays. Why? One source seems insignificant, two isn't quite persuasive enough but three adds a degree of credibility and respectability.
  • The New St. Martin’s Handbook; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors; 1999.
  • The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers; Maxine Hairston and John Ruszkiewicz; 1991.
  • The Little, Brown Handbook; H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron and Kay Limburg; 1992.
  • Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Expository Essays
About the Author

With education, health care and small business marketing as her core interests, M.T. Wroblewski has penned pieces for Woman's Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and many newspapers and magazines. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.

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