Lists: Bullets or numbers?

To-do list! Picture by  StockSnap  on Licence: CCO

To-do list! Picture by StockSnap on Licence: CCO

We probably all make lists: to-do lists, shopping lists, list of characters to feature in a story, and we probably don't think too much about the format of these lists when we're the only person who will be using them.

But what if you're including a list in a report, or you've created a checklist as part of an installation guide for a product? The big question is: should you use bullets or numbers?

The answer is quite simple, and it comes from one of the British Standards guides. The rule is as follows:

Use bullets where the order of items is unimportant.

Use numbers when the order of items is important.

For example, when I wrote my checklist for evaluating digital content, I used bullets because it really doesn't matter that much which items you cover first. Indeed, you could skip some items altogether (if you don't work in a school, for example), or 'outsource' some of them to someone else, like your spouse.

On the other hand, if you're writing a checklist for software installation, then the order of items is likely to be important. The list might read as follows:

  1. Make a backup of your important files.
  2. Create a restore point or equivalent, if your computer has that facility.
  3. Uninstall the current version of the software if you already have it.
  4. Ensure that you have key documentation to hand, such as the registration number of the licence.
  5. Install the software.
  6. Check that the software runs correctly.
  7. Check that the files you created with the old version work with the new version.
  8. Document what you have done and any other changes that you have made.

You can see right away that the order of items is significant. You would be pretty silly to, say, install the software and then create a restore point. The whole purpose of a restore point is to make it easy for you to put your computer back to the same state it was in before you installed or upgraded the software.

So there you have it: the bullets vs numbers riddle solved!