Writer's toolkit

9th May 2003 at 01:00
We like bullets. (In a grammar column we assume we don't need to explain which kind we mean.) Since the advent of word-processing, bullets are everywhere and children should learn to use them. But where do they leave the idea of continuous prose? We'll come back to that one below. Here are some reasons why we like bullets.

* They're honest - they treat a mere list as a mere list.

* They're economical - the reader knows it's a mere list, and doesn't scrabble around looking for deeper connections.

* They're logical - the reader can see the logical structure clearly: * If there's a sub-list, it stands out (literally).

* If there isn't, the reader knows the points all have the same logical value.

* They're readable - they divide information very clearly into digestible mouthfuls.

* They're efficient - everyone agrees that they're the most efficient way of transmitting information; that's why they're compulsory in executive summaries.

* They're enabling - they allow lists to reach otherwise unimaginable lengths; for example, the national curriculum for English contains sentences up to half a page long, entirely thanks to bullet points.

* They're fun - you can vary between fancy and plain, abstract and numerical: like this,

then this,

(1) then this,

(2) then this,

then back to this,

and finally back home again.

* They're official - every government document is full of them.

But there's a snag. Bullets are new, and the literacy world hasn't quite caught up with them. We still struggle with the idea of "continuous prose" as the model to be aspired towards in English. While science and geography clearly need lists, graphs, tables and subheadings, it can still seem as if English doesn't. "Proper" writing is still stuck in the 18th century essay. Just think of broadsheet newspapers - or tabloids, for that matter. News reports are full of lists - lists of events, of arguments, of facts. Or rather: * lists of events,

* lists of arguments,

* lists of facts.

And yet many of them rarely use bullet points. Why not? We assume it's part of a house style. An article is expected to be continuous prose. Why? Because the reader's interests come second to tradition.

Any schoolchild can see that bullet points are a really good idea, and may wonder why they're discouraged from some kinds of writing. We agree. There is undoubtedly an unresolved issue about the link between bullets and punctuation but:

* It's a big question

* We're out of space.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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