On the list

On the list

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, and so you can be ready to battle (or perhaps groom) it with your own checklist: consistency with other lists? Consistency in capitalisation and punctuation? 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:

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 recent project:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Saladin and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

An urgent question is whether Saladin was the farrier and Derek the castle steward (sure, there could have been ‘a’ before ‘palace’ if so, but...). Adding a comma after Saladin, 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, Saladin, 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 semi-colons:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the military commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’); the prince’s tutor, Saladin; 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.

‘As well as’

These days, even Radio 4 is broadcasting constructions like ‘England, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well as Wales ...’ (and don’t even get me started on its use of ‘decimation’). ‘As well as’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. If you wanted to say that although Wales has lovely beaches, so do England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, adding an ‘and’ before Scotland and a comma afterwards would do it. Simply want to list the four nations? Replace ‘as well as’ with ‘and’.


‘Both’ should be employed when it makes ‘and’ stronger (‘she was both accurate and fast’). However, as Advanced Professional Member Fiona Little remarked in a recent SfEP forum, some less experienced academic writers use it ‘whenever they mention two things’.

As Fiona also pointed out, you need to make sure that ‘both’ refers to two items, not three or four. Recently I saw ‘both’ combined with another word that should only precede two things, to list three: a professional ‘doubled as both actor, artist and musician’.

Fiona’s comments were in response to an interesting query from Amanda A. Morgan, also an Advanced Professional Member, about the construction ‘both X and in particular Y’. Should Amanda do something about this or was she being oversensitive? The lively discussion that followed, which included suggestions to parenthesise ‘in particular’ with commas and to delete ‘both’ altogether, showed how tricky such decisions on list formation can be.

‘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.

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...

First published as an article in the January/February 2019 issue of Editing Matters, the magazine of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

Credit: Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

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