Writing Parallel Lists

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Parallel List?

A parallel list is a list in which every list item starts with the same type of word.

Examples of Non-Parallel and Parallel Lists

It is an excellent idea when writing lists to ensure that each list item is written in the same style. When list items are written in the same style, the list is said to be parallel. Bullet points are great, but parallel bullet points are great with a cherry on top.

You will have to invest some brainpower to make a list parallel, but a parallel list is much easier to read and far clearer. It will also portray you as a clear thinker. Once you've learned how to make lists parallel, there will be no going back.

Trust me. You will grow to love parallel lists.

Here is an example of a non-parallel list:
Risk-mitigation levers:
  • The updating of the memorandum of understanding.
  • Engage with stakeholders on a monthly basis.
  • Completed tender by January.
Here is a parallel version:
Ways to reduce risk:
  • Update the memorandum of understanding.
  • Engage with stakeholders on a monthly basis.
  • Complete the tender by January.
Note: The two introductions above are not related to parallel lists. I just wanted to make the point that "Ways to reduce risk" is clearer than "Risk-mitigation levers". Have the confidence to use simplistic words.)

The non-parallel list is fairly clear, but I hate it. The first bullet starts with a noun (notwithstanding the "The"), the second with a verb, and the third with an adjective (well, a participle). The grammar's not important. What's important is that they all start with a different type of word. Even if you can't describe what nouns, verbs etc. are (and most people can't), it doesn't matter. You will instinctively know how to make your list parallel if you're minded to do so.

Here's another example of a non-parallel list:
I would advise visitors to avoid:
  • Bathing in the river.
  • Driving in the town.
  • The local tapas bar.
That's not bad, but it's not quite parallel. This is the parallel version:
I would advise visitors to avoid:
  • Bathing in the river.
  • Driving in the town.
  • Eating in the local tapas bar.
Parallel lists will make your writing far clearer. If you look back at the first set of lists (Risk-mitigation levers), it's not clear from the non-parallel version that there is an action required for each bullet. However, that is clear on the parallel version. When dealing with risk to your business, you don't need any ambiguity surrounding how you're going to reduce your risks. This reminds me of some advice I once heard on an Army junior leadership course back in the late 1980s. We were taught to nominate a person when barking out a quick instruction. "Jacko, call an ambulance" is far clearer than "Will someone call an ambulance?" The first version is more likely to get the job done than the second. Well, that clarity is what you get with parallel lists.

Just to be clear, not every list item has to be an action, but each one does have to start with the same kind of word.

A quick word on formatting. The most common way to format bullet points is to start each one with a capital letter and end each one with a period (full stop). (In PowerPoint, people tend to drop the full stop.) Unless you have a company policy on this, there are no strict rules governing what you should do except one. Pick whatever formatting you want and then be consistent.

Here's a quick example of why you should write bullet points.
"Please don't light fires, damage trees and take your litter home."
(National Trust sign at Wembury near Plymouth)
I think it's clear from this sign what you're not allowed to do, but the English is broken. (For me, the National Trust's credibility dropped a bit when I saw this sign.) If they'd used parallel bullet points, they'd have written a much more credible sign, and they wouldn't have tied themselves in knots with the sentence structure.

They should have written this:
Please do not:
  • Light fires.
  • Damage trees.
  • Leave litter.

More about Bullet Points

People like reading bullet points. There's one introduction and then a list of important information that's presented in easy-to-find, bite-sized chunks. Whenever you're writing a list, don't string it out in a long line of text as part of a sentence. Get it chopped up into bullet points. (Besides, punctuating lists in sentences can be a nightmare.)

Format, Word Choice, and Grammar

The effectiveness of your document will also be determined by the following:

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