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Numbered lists

I was recently asked about numbered lists so here is some information about them for everyone else, too!

Using a list can be a better way to present information than just using straight text all the time – it can simplify things for the reader, it is generally much easier as a quick reference and it can make the document more visually interesting than a page of text alone.

Adding numbers to a list (and although I use the word number, a numbered list may use roman numerals or letters instead of Arabic numbers) is usually reserved for when the order of the list is important or when reference to specific points is likely.

Clarity and consistency are the two keys to making a useful list. If the items in a list have further divisions, make sure those divisions are clear – or make multiple lists. Lists with divisions are generally referred to as outline lists, such as the following:

  1. prepare a draft
  2. edit the draft
    1. check spelling
    2. check grammar
    3. ensure everything makes sense
  3. get someone else to review the draft
  4. edit the draft
  5. finalise the draft
    1. add formatting
    2. check page breaks and similar details
    3. send to print

The sub divisions in this list are clear to the eye but would be much clearer overall if they used a different numbering system (for example, ‘add formatting’ would be a or i and ‘send to print’ would be c or iii.)

If there is only one item, it technically isn’t a list so a number isn’t required. A single item can either be incorporated into sentence form or just be listed with a bullet or em-dash. Adding a number to a single item is likely to confuse people as they look for subsequent points that don’t exist.

Keeping numbering clear and consistent is also critical for speakers, not just writers. I have attended a number of presentations where they start with clear points (E.g. “here are five ways to get website traffic. Number one is…”) but get sidetracked or forget the numbering and my notes are confused and/or disjointed as a result.

Do you have any further questions about numbered lists I might be able to help with?

Use your words, and numbers, wisely!

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