When a long sentence contains a collection of items that are similar in nature and importance, consider replacing it with an introductory clause followed by a bulleted list.
In the March, 2021 edition of the Bulletin, we discussed the importance of avoiding convoluted sentence construction and demonstrated how a single sentence crammed with multiple thoughts can be broken down into several shorter sentences arranged in a logical sequence. (See “Favor the Simple, Declarative Sentence” https://www.sfbar.org/blog/favor-the-simple-declarative-sentence/)
When multiple pieces of information embedded in one, overly long sentence are closely related, we have another option for improving readability: we can transform the sentence into an introductory clause followed by a list.
Instead of having to plow through this:
Appellant stipulated and agreed to a valuation by the Referee that provided, in pertinent part, that the Referee would decide valuation issues left open by the trial court’s Corrected Final Statement of Decision, including the amount of cash owned by the parties’ former partnership, the amount of payments received by the Partnership by reason of the Partnership’s existing accounts (those that existed at the time of the dissolution) during the windup, i.e., from April 4 2014 to June 18th, 2014, costs incurred and paid by the Partnership in connection with servicing those accounts during the windup, the amount of Partnership liabilities to its creditors, which do not include any amounts paid to Partnership creditors during the windup, the amounts, if any, generated by the sale of any of the Partnership’s assets, identification of active customer accounts that existed as of the date of dissolution of the Partnership , as well as the fees they generated each month and the time period over which such fees were to be paid under the customer contract.
Wouldn’t you rather read this?
Appellant stipulated to the Referee’s valuation of the Partnership for the winding up period of April 4, 2014 to June 18th, 2014. The Referee was charged with determining or identifying:
- the Partnership’s cash;
- the payments received by the Partnership;
- the Partnership’s paid costs;
- the Partnership’s liabilities;
- the amounts generated by the sale of the Partnership’s assets;
- the Partnership’s active customer accounts as of dissolution;
- the average fees generated each month by each account; and
- the time period over which the fees were to be paid under the customer’s contract.
Listing is a handy way to dispense information in bite-sized pieces, and placing a bullet, or dot, before each entry provides visual emphasis.
While some attorneys believe that bulleted lists are strictly for use in casual settings, legal writing experts who advocate for the Plain English approach say they are acceptable in court filings and other legal contexts and should be used in lieu of numerals when the items in the list are of equal importance and have no chronological order.
Here’s a sentence that Richard C. Wydick describes in his Plain English for Lawyers as needing the “list trick”:
You can qualify for benefits under Section 43 if you are sixty-four or older and unable to work, and that section also provides benefits in the event that you are blind in one eye, or both eyes, or are permanently disabled in the course of your employment.
You can qualify for benefits under Section 43 if you meet any one of the following:
- you are 64 or older and are unable to work; or
- you are blind in one or both eyes; or
- you are permanently disabled in the course of your employment.
(Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (5th ed. 2005) “Arrange Your Words with Care,” ch. 6, p. 45.)
When using the “list trick,” make sure that the entries are parallel in syntactic structure. Notice how in the first example, each item is a related noun, and in the second, each item is a related sentence beginning with the word, “you.”
Don’t write a list like this:
- pears; and
- slicing the grapefruit.
Wydick tells us to place a semi-colon after each entry except the last, and after the last, place a period. Legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner says that if each item is a stand-alone sentence, you may end each with a period, but you must capitalize the first letter of the first word of each entry and still use a clause to introduce the list, followed by a colon.
Either way, do not complete the introductory clause after the last item in the list. The last entry must end the passage or sentence; a list should never appear in the middle of a one.
Single-space the bulleted text, but double-space the bulleted items, unless each entry is extremely short—as in the example above. And make sure to leave a space between the bullet and the first letter of the item.
Finally, be sure to indent the list itself, and use hanging indents for the bulleted text that runs longer than a single line. The text should not wrap around the bullet; the bullet should hang to the left on its own.
About the Author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF.