Friday, September 24, 2010

How to present a numbered list in a sentence

There are several ways to give an enumerated (numbered) list in sentence form. One way is to put the number (not the number word) in parentheses, like this:

I came up with three reasons: (1) this is my first reason, (2) this is my second reason, and (3) this is my third reason.

Notice that the numbers are inside a pair of parentheses. It is not considered correct to use just one parenthesis after the number. If the introduction of the reasons is not a complete sentence, do not use a colon to introduce the list. Instead, do this:

My reasons are (1) this is my first reason, (2) this is my second reason, and (3) this is my third reason.

If the text of any of the reasons contains a comma, then you use semicolons between the items—but if that happens, you should consider making it a vertical list, like this:

I came up with three reasons:
1. This is my first reason, which contains a comma.
2. This is my second reason.
3. This is my third reason.

Another way to list reasons would be in separate sentences, using the ordinal forms of the number words, like this:

I came up with three reasons. First, this is my first reason. Second, this is my second reason. Third, this is my third reason.

Combining these into one big sentence with semicolons is not recommended, because if you are putting an enumerated list into one sentence, you use the numbers in parentheses as in my first example.

You can, of course, choose to use letters instead of numbers in all but the last situation.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Interrupting Yourself: Contrary Negatives

Seldom do we speak in a straight line. We pause, we go back, we interrupt ourselves, we repeat. The same is true in writing—even writing that is clear and concise. There are multiple ways to interrupt the flow of writing. Let’s take a look at the interruption called a contrary negative.

A contrary negative is a type of interruption that clarifies what we are talking about by stating what it is not. Here are some examples:

• The Tooltip, not the Screentip, gives the name of an icon or button on the screen.

• The left margin, but not the right margin, is indented for block quotes in our style.

Contrary negative interruptions always have a comma before and after. Make sure not to confuse them with the correlative conjunction not only, but also. This structure does not require any commas:

• Not only the background but also the entire text is selected by this method.

• The software handles not only pie charts but also bar, column, line, and scatter charts.

In a contrary negative, you are cutting out a possibility; with a correlative conjunction, you are adding a possibility. A possible memory aid is when you are cutting out a possibility, you also cut out that part of the sentence with commas.

So go ahead and interrupt yourself for clarity, but be sure to use the commas correctly.