Answered By: Theresa Bell
Last Updated: Nov 15, 2017     Views: 10104

When considering the use of a bulleted or numbered list in your academic writing, please take a moment to consider if the list will encourage understanding of the topic, or if the list is a technique to avoid using full sentences to explain a concept. As you might imagine, the latter isn’t a valid reason to use a bulleted or numbered list in a formal academic paper because bulleted lists do not generally include analysis, but instead only provide surface-level information. Since the focus of academic writing is to demonstrate your critical thinking, you will more fully communicate your ideas by writing complete sentences. Please see below for information on each type of list, and for help with deciding which type of list to use in your text, please see "Lists, Part 6: Overview" from the APA Style Blog.

Numbered lists

The American Psychological Association (2010) reserves numbered lists to identify specific paragraphs, such as "itemized conclusions or steps in a procedure" (p. 63), or sentences (p. 63). Numbered paragraphs should be

identified by an Arabic numeral followed by a period but not enclosed in or followed by parentheses. Separate sentences in a series are also identified by an Arabic numeral followed by a period; the first word is capitalized, and the sentence ends with a period or correct punctuation. (p. 63)

Please keep in mind that "the use of 'numbered lists' may connote an unwanted or unwarranted ordinal position (e.g. chronology, importance, priority) among the items" (p. 64). To avoid this suggestion of position, use a bulleted list instead. 

Bulleted lists

When using bullets to set off short paragraphs, capitalize the first letter of the first sentence and end the paragraph with a period (see page 64 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association for examples). When using a bulleted list to separate three or more elements within a sentence, “capitalize and punctuate the list as if it were a complete sentence” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 64). 

Lettered lists within a sentence

If you want to identify elements in a series within a paragraph or sentence without breaking the elements into a numbered or bulleted list, you can use lowercase letters in parentheses (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 64). For example, "the participant's three choices were (a) working with another participant, (b) working with a team, and (c) working alone" (p. 64). To punctuate a lettered list within a sentence, "use commas to separate three or more elements that do not have internal commas; use semicolons to separate three or more elements that have internal commas" (p. 64). For example, "we tested three groups: (a) low scorers, who scored fewer than 20 points; (b) moderate scorers, who scored between 20 and 50 points; and (c) high scorers, who scored more than 50 points" (p. 64). 

For more information and examples of numbered, bulleted, and lettered lists, please see pages 63-65 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.