Verbal Energy

We speak nowadays in a hail of bullets

The Monitor's language columnist finds the orderly, ordinary paragraph under threat from the bulleted list.

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Bullets are flying, and the paragraph is under attack.

This is my observation as I take a breather after an intensive few days of editing. I'm noticing how much communication – on Web pages, on PowerPoint presentations, and even in textbooks – goes on in the form of bulleted lists, rather than well-formed paragraphs, made up of complete sentences, one of them designated as a topic sentence.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Bullet points help a communicator focus on key ideas and identify the "bones" of his or her argument. Bullets can get an audience thinking in terms of categories and grouping multiple ideas under single headings: "Five Tips for Picking Out a Great Interview Suit," for instance. It helps to remember that there are five – or however many.

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For public speakers, bullet points serve as prompts to extemporaneous speech, and are often more useful than a complete text. On the printed page, bullets "break up the gray," as we say in the world of publishing. They give the eye "relief."

Actually, paragraphs do the same thing, or were meant to. Here's what H.W. Fowler says in "Modern English Usage": "The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: 'Have you got that? If so, I'll go on to the next point....' A reader will address himself more readily to his task if he sees from the start that he will have breathing spaces from time to time than if what is before him looks like a marathon course."

Paragraph comes from a Greek term meaning essentially "a mark beside the writing," meant to indicate a break; the word has come to mean the writing thus broken up. You might say that paragraph is to prose as slice is to pizza.

But today word-processing software affords multiple options for bullets. On my own version of Word I find, in addition to square, round, and hollow bullets, some high-energy pointers and also some check marks. These may be meant for those who make after-the-fact lists of things they have already done. There's also a four-color bullet whose shape vaguely suggests the Methodist church logo, as viewed from a distance through a dusty window. Does anyone know what's up with that one?

The key to making good use of bullet points is to make sure the elements on your list hang together. If you're writing about "Six Things You Should Do Before Shopping for a Good Used Car," make sure you give your readers or listeners six things they should do, not four things plus a snarky observation about used-car salesmen and a nostalgic whine about what a gem your old Mustang was.

And it's important – here I put my copy-editor hat back on – that the elements in the list be parallel: all complete sentences, all noun phrases, or all verb phrases, for instance, or even all paragraphs.

If your material isn't really a collection of comparable elements, then bullets are probably not the best presentation. After all, a paragraph lets you mix things up a bit: a declarative sentence here, a rhetorical question there, maybe even a brief list. A paragraph is better than bullets for putting elements into more complex relationships: This, and only occasionally that. This, despite that. This; on the other hand, sometimes that, especially if..."

In our bulleted age, a good old-fashioned paragraph can still be useful.

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