List (Grammar and Sentence Styles)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A list from Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1928). (Getty Images)

In composition, a list is a series of particular images, details, or facts. Also called a series, a catalog, an inventory, and (in classical rhetoricenumeratio.

Lists are often used in works of fiction and creative nonfiction (including essays) to evoke a sense of place or character. Lists are commonly used in business writing and technical writing to convey factual information succinctly. 

How Lists Are Arranged

The items in a list are usually arranged in parallel form and separated by commas (or semicolons if the items themselves contain commas).

In business writing and technical writing, lists are commonly arranged vertically, with each item preceded by a number or a bullet.

Lists may also be used as a discovery or prewriting strategy. (See listing.)

Lists in Nonfiction

Lists in nonfiction works help to explain and clarify points writers are trying to make. From a listing of inventions that helped propel civilization forward to a discussion of the very function of lists, this method of creating an inventory can help readers more fully understand the concepts under discussion. Here are some examples.

Neil Postman

"The modern technocracies of the West have their roots in the medieval European world, from which there emerged three great inventions: the mechanical clock, which provided a new conception of time; the printing press with movable type, which attacked the epistemology of the oral tradition; and the telescope, which attacked the fundamental propositions of Judeo-Christian theology. Each of these was significant in creating a new relationship between tools and culture."—"Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology." Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Francis Spufford

"My own inclination is to think of [lists] as a rhetorical figure—like hyperbole, say, or zeugma—as an essentially humble figure that can be extended indefinitely and still flavour what it is applied to."—"The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature." Chatto & Windus, 1989.

Maria Konnikova

"We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember. This facet of sharing helps explain the appeal of list-type stories . . ., as well as stories that stick in your mind because they are bizarre. Lists also get shared because of another feature that [marketing professor Jonah] Berger often finds successful: the promise of practical value. 'We see top-ten lists on Buzzfeed and the like all the time,' he notes. 'It allows people to feel like there’s a nice packet of useful information that they can share with others.' We want to feel smart and for others to perceive us as smart and helpful, so we craft our online image accordingly."—"The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You." The New Yorker, January 21, 2014.

The List as a Graphic Device

"Keep in mind that graphic devices should be used carefully and with moderation, not just for decoration or to dress up a letter or report. Used properly, they can help you to

  • organize, arrange, and emphasize your ideas
  • make your work easier to read and recall
  • preview and summarize your ideas, for example, headings
  • list related items to help readers distinguish, follow, compare, and recall them--as this bulleted list does."—Philip C. Kolin, :Successful Writing at Work, 8th ed." Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

"The most important effect of any list is to create white space on the page, making for a relaxed visual environment in which information can be scanned and understood."—Roy Peter Clark, "How to Write Short." Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

Functions of Lists

"Lists . . . may compile a history, gather evidence, order and organize phenomena, present an agenda of apparent formlessness, and express a multiplicity of voices and experiences. . . Each unit in a list possesses an individual significance but also a specific meaning by virtue of its membership with the other units in the compilation (though this is not to say that the units are always equally significant). Writers find a wide range of application for lists because of this capability, and subsequently critics offer a variety of readings."—Robert E. Belknap, "The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing." Yale University Press, 2004.

"[E]ssayists have been using the list as a way to structure thought for a long time. (Sontag’s 'Notes on "Camp,"' to point to a famous example, takes the form of a list of fifty-eight numbered fragments.) But the list is a way of writing that anticipates, and addresses itself to, a certain capriciousness in the reader. By not only allowing partial and fleeting engagement but by actively encouraging it, the list becomes the form which accommodates itself most smoothly to the way a lot of us read now, a lot of the time. It’s the house style of a distracted culture."—Marc O'Connell, "10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now." The New Yorker, August 29, 2013.

Paragraphs and Essays

Lists in Literature

Literature is also chock-full of lists. From E.B. White presenting a list of what you might find in a horse barn to Mark Twain describing the "wealth" Tom Sawyer had accumulated with his list of items (from "a blue bottle-glass to look through" to "a key that wouldn't unlock anything" and even "a fragment of chalk"), lists provide a rich literary tool that allows authors to provide context and meaning in their works.

E.B. White

"A rat can creep out late at night and have a feast. In the horse barn you will find oats that the trotters and pacers have spilled. In the trampled grass of the infield you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese. In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone home to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat—in tents, in booths, in hay lofts—why, a fair has enough disgusting leftover food to satisfy a whole army of rats."—"Charlotte's Web." Harper & Brothers, 1952.

Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery)

"There were too many bells at Castrevenford altogether. There were the clock chimes, which sounded the hours, halves and quarters with peevish insistence; the bells in the Science Building; the electric bell which marked the beginning and end of each lesson; the hand bells in the Houses; the chapel bell, which had obviously suffered some radical mishap during its casting."—"Love Lies Bleeding," 1948

Annie Dillard

"Her speech was an endlessly interesting, swerving path of old punch lines, heartfelt cris de coeur, puns new and old, dramatic true confessions, challenges, witty one-liners, wee Scotticisms, tag lines from Frank Sinatra songs, obsolete mountain nouns, and moral exhortations."—"An American Childhood." Harper & Row, 1987

Laurence Sterne

"What a jovial and a merry world would this be, may it please your worships, but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief, discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions and lies!"—"Tristram Shandy" 1759-1767.

George Orwell

"One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England."—"The Road to Wigan Pier." 1937.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind."—"The Poet," 1844.

Mark Twain

"There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. . . . And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jew's-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash."—"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." 1876.

Terry McMillans

"When she opened the cupboards, an ache slid down her forehead into her nasal passage and throbbed on the roof of each nostril. It continued like an arrow into her skull, and skated up and down her neck until it had no place else to go. Mildred gave her head a good shake. Bags of black-eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans, lima beans, and a big bag of rice stared her in the face. She opened another cabinet and there sat half a jar of peanut butter, a can of sweet peas and carrots, one can of creamed corn, and two cans of pork-n-beans. There was nothing in the refrigerator except a few crinkly apples she'd gotten from the apple man two weeks ago, a stick of margarine, four eggs, a quart of milk, a box of lard, a can of Pet milk, and a two-inch piece of salt pork."—"Mama." Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Dorothy Sayers

"The very work that engaged him—or rather, the shadow simulacrum of himself that signed itself on every morning—wafted him into a sphere of dim platonic archetypes, bearing a scarcely recognizable relationship to anything in the living world. Here those strange entities, the Thrifty Housewife, the Man of Discrimination, the Keen Buyer and the Good Judge, for ever young, for ever handsome, for ever virtuous, economical and inquisitive, moved to and fro upon their complicated orbits, comparing prices and values, making tests of purity, asking indiscreet questions about each other's ailments, household expenses, bed-springs, shaving cream, diet, laundry work and boots, perpetually spending to save and saving to spend, cutting out coupons and collecting cartons, surprising husbands with margarine and wives with patent washers and vacuum-cleaners, occupied from morning to night in washing, cooking, dusting, filing, saving their children from germs, their complexions from wind and weather, their teeth from decay and their stomachs from indigestion, and yet adding so many hours to the day by labour-saving appliances that they had always leisure for visiting the talkies, sprawling on the beach to picnic upon Potted Meats and Tinned Fruit, and (when adorned by So-and-so's Silks, Blank's Gloves, Dash's Footwear, Whatnot's Weatherproof Complexion Cream and Thingummy's Beautifying Shampoos), even attending Renalagh, Cowes, the Grand Stand at Ascot, Monte Carlo and the Queen's Drawing-Rooms."—"Murder Must Advertise." 1933.

Tom Wolfe

"All round them, tens, scores, it seems like hundreds, of faces and bodies are perspiring, trooping and bellying up the stairs with arteriosclerotic grimaces past a showcase full of such novelty items as Joy Buzzers, Squirting Nickels, Finger Rats, Scary Tarantulas and spoons with realistic dead flies on them, past Fred's barbershop, which is just off the landing and has glossy photographs of young men with the kind of baroque haircuts one can get in there, and up onto 50th Street into a madhouse of traffic and shops with weird lingerie and gray hair-dyeing displays in the windows, signs for free teacup readings and a pool-playing match between the Playboy Bunnies and Downey's Showgirls, and then everybody pounds on toward the Time-Life Building, the Brill Building or NBC."—Tom Wolfe, "A Sunday Kind of Love." The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

"With Nicole’s help Rosemary bought two dresses and two hats and four pairs of shoes with her money. Nicole bought from a great list that ran two pages, and bought the things in the windows besides. Everything she liked that she couldn’t possibly use herself, she bought as a present for a friend. She bought colored beads, folding beach cushions, artificial flowers, honey, a guest bed, bags, scarfs, love birds, miniatures for a doll’s house and three yards of some new cloth the color of prawns. She bought a dozen bathing suits, a rubber alligator, a traveling chess set of gold and ivory, big linen handkerchiefs for Abe, two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue and burning bush from Hermes--bought all these things not a bit like a high-class courtesan buying underwear and jewels, which were after all professional equipment and insurance--but with an entirely different point of view.

"Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors--these were some of the people who gave a tithe to Nicole, and as the whole system swayed and thundered onward it lent a feverish bloom to such processes of hers as wholesale buying, like the flush of a fireman’s face holding his post before a spreading blaze. She illustrated very simple principles, containing in herself her own doom, but illustrated them so accurately that there was grace in the procedure, and presently Rosemary would try to imitate it."—"Tender Is the Night." 1934.

Emily St. John Mandel

"Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, crates, shipping containers. Consider the card games played belowdecks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors’ dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscrapers. Consider the signature on the shipping manifest when the ship reached port, a signature unlike any other on earth, the coffee cup in the hand of the driver delivering boxes to the distribution center, the secret hopes of the UPS man carrying boxes of snow globes from there to the Severn City Airport. Clark shook the globe and held it up to the light. When he looked through it, the planes were warped and caught in whirling snow."—"Station Eleven." Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

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Nordquist, Richard. "List (Grammar and Sentence Styles)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, August 2). List (Grammar and Sentence Styles). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "List (Grammar and Sentence Styles)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).

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