Blog Post

Structuring lists within sentences

I often find myself frustrated with the way that writers structure lists.

Here’s an example from a book I’m reading at the moment:

‘You’ve no doubt spent years acquiring skills, talents, qualifications, experience and knowledge and building your network and contacts.’

This sentence is tough on readers. It’s a list with two parts – things that you’ve been acquiring and things that you’ve been building. But the set of things that you’ve been acquiring has four sub-parts, while the set of things that you’ve been building has two sub-parts.

There’s no neat way to punctuate this as one sentence while helping readers to easily understand the two parts and their sub-parts.

I think there are three solutions for this sentence: collapse the list so that it has no sub-parts, arrange the sentence as two bullet points, or divide the ideas across two sentences.

Here’s the single-list approach (though the list does end up rather too long):

‘You’ve no doubt spent years acquiring skills, talents, qualifications, experience, knowledge, networks and contacts.’

Here’s another example of a sentence with a list that causes me trouble:

‘Other taxes should be maintained only if they efficiently address social or economic costs – such as taxes on tobacco, alcohol, gambling and environmental costs, and efficient road user taxes or charges.’

This sentence is fine until I get about half way through. As a reader, I assume that the first list provides examples of social or economic costs (tobacco, alcohol, gambling and environment) – though then I’m left wondering whether an environmental cost can really be a social or economic cost. But then I have no way of understanding where the road user taxes or charges should fit. Are they another example or another category entirely? Very confusing!

Beware those lists! Do everything possible with words and punctuation to ensure that readers: (1) understand that they’re reading a list, (2) can identify the parts of the list, and (3) recognise any sub-parts of the list. Oh, and while you’re at it, remember the value of parallelism in helping people to follow your list.

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