Punctuating Sentences as Lists in Theses and Dissertations
Lists are extremely effective tools for students who are writing a thesis or dissertation. A list can present a great deal of complicated material in a concise format that is especially clear and well organised for readers. Lists also tend to be easy to locate, even in a long document, so readers will return to lists to confirm and clarify information as they progress through a text. Any lists you use in your thesis or dissertation should therefore be carefully designed and presented, using punctuation that effectively distinguishes categories, items and the relationships between them.
There are two basic kinds of lists that are frequently used in academic and scientific writing: embedded lists that appear in the main running text of a document and displayed lists that are presented slightly apart from the main text via variations in indentation, spacing and sometimes font size. Lists can be very long indeed and contain many sentences, but my focus here is the effective punctuation of lists that form a single sentence, whether they are embedded or displayed. The two types of lists use similar punctuation, as the examples below demonstrate, but there are some differences worth noting as well.
A single-sentence list should usually be punctuated with commas between the items and a full stop closing the sentence. The first example here shows an embedded list and the second one a displayed list.
‘The instructor obviously understood our needs because she brought paper, blue and red pens, and pencils.’
‘The instructor obviously understood our needs because she brought
• blue and red pens,
Notice that the embedded list uses the conjunction ‘and,’ whereas the displayed one does not. The comma that appears before that ‘and’ in the embedded list is a serial comma and is not strictly necessary in such lists (see my next set of examples), but in this case the comma is advisable to avoid the implication that the ‘pencils’ were also ‘blue and red.’
If the opening or introductory part of the sentence containing a list does not lead naturally into the list (with a verb or preposition, for instance), but forms an independent clause, a colon is normally used to introduce the list part of the sentence. The embedded example appears first again and the displayed list follows.
‘The paper was a team effort: David conducted the research, Emily analysed the data and Amanda drafted the text.’
‘The paper was a team effort:
• David conducted the research
• Emily analysed the data
• Amanda drafted the text’
Notice here that when a list appears after a colon in a displayed format, not just the coordinating conjunction, but also the punctuation between items (commas in this case) and at the end of the list (a full stop) is not required, though it is not incorrect to use such punctuation (see my next set of examples).
If each of the items in a single-sentence list is complicated or contains internal punctuation and conjunctions, using semicolons instead of commas to separate the items will help clarify the overall structure of the list and the relationships between the individual items. The embedded example precedes the displayed one again.
‘The paper was a team effort, with everyone contributing their best: David had designed the methodology, so he conducted the research; Emily has taken several courses in statistics, so she analysed the data; and Amanda was working on her English degree, so she drafted the text.’
‘The paper was a team effort, with everyone contributing their best:
• David had designed the methodology, so he conducted the research;
• Emily has taken several courses in statistics, so she analysed the data;
• Amanda was working on her English degree, so she drafted the text.’
Here I have used punctuation (semicolons and a full stop) in the displayed list as well, but it is not strictly necessary (see my previous set of examples).
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