They’re lurking in most documents and they can contain pitfalls. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle looks at common problems with lists in body text, from punctuation to miscounting. The article covers:
- Why pay attention to in-text lists?
- Insufficient punctuation
- ‘As well as’
- First … secondly … fourth
- Mistakes in counting
In editing any document, you will usually come across an attempt to present more than one piece of information in a serial fashion – in other words, to create a list. You can easily detect a bulleted or numbered list trotting towards you, like a reliable but sometimes unkempt pony, so you can be ready to battle (or perhaps groom) it with your own checklist: is there consistency with other lists? Is there consistency in capitalisation and punctuation? What about agreement of lead-in text with all points, particularly those at the end? And so on. New Hart’s Rules and Butcher’s Copy-editing can help you build a checklist for grooming your ponies – I mean, for improving your vertical lists.
But lists in body text can sneak up on you, like a silent flock of sheep. Why does this matter? Because if you recognise an in-text list, you can look for its likely problems. Here are five issues I frequently come across.
1. Insufficient punctuation
If the author is underusing punctuation, here is where your most effective (yet subtle) work as an editor can be done. This text is based on a past project:
This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.
An urgent question is whether Aristotle was the farrier and Derek the castle steward (sure, there could have been an ‘a’ before ‘castle’ if so, but …). Adding a comma after Aristotle, which the author confirmed was correct, starts to make things clearer:
This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle, and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.
However, this is still not an easy sentence to understand. Is it obvious who has which role? Time to bring in the semicolons:
This was the outcome of a discussion between the military commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’); the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle; and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.
It helps to make sure that there are enough ‘and’s, so that many ‘and’s make light work of comprehension (*snigger*). Also, keep your eye on phrasing:
The pony groom had a wooden brush, colourful ribbons and displayed her certificate on the wall.
This is not one list. There are two phrases in the sentence, so the first needs an ‘and’ and a comma at the end for clarity:
The pony groom had a wooden brush and colourful ribbons, and displayed her certificate on the wall.
These days on national radio it’s quite common to hear constructions such as ‘England, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well as Wales’. But ‘as well as’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. It heralds an addition to a list rather than its final item, so you need ‘and’ as well as ‘as well as’, as in this sentence, which conveys that although Wales has lovely beaches, so do England, Northern Ireland and Scotland:
England, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as Wales have lovely beaches.
And if you simply want to list the four nations, replace ‘as well as’ with ‘and’:
England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
‘Both’ should be employed when it makes ‘and’ stronger (‘she was both accurate and fast’). However, as one of our Advanced Professional Members remarked in a 2018 CIEP (then SfEP) forum post, some less experienced writers use it ‘whenever they mention two things’.
As this member also pointed out, you need to make sure that ‘both’ refers to two items, not three or four. I’ve seen ‘both’ combined with another word that should only precede two things, to list three: a professional ‘doubled as both actor, artist and musician’.
5. ‘First … secondly … fourth’
If you see ‘first’, immediately locate ‘second’ (remember, don’t allow ‘secondly’ unless you have ‘firstly’), and make sure all subsequent flagging words proceed in the right order with no absences. If this threatens to get out of control (more than five points can be unwieldy), suggest a numbered list.
6. Mistakes in counting
It almost seems too obvious, but if an author says there are five items in their list, make sure that five there are. Things get added, things get cut, and the author forgets that they have mentioned, a few paragraphs up, that they will present five items … wait, I think I may have done this myself …
Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
Find out more about:
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.