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We speak nowadays in a hail of bullets

The Monitor's language columnist finds the orderly, ordinary paragraph under threat from the bulleted list.

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Bullets are flying, and the paragraph is under attack.

This is my observation as I take a breather after an intensive few days of editing. I'm noticing how much communication – on Web pages, on PowerPoint presentations, and even in textbooks – goes on in the form of bulleted lists, rather than well-formed paragraphs, made up of complete sentences, one of them designated as a topic sentence.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Bullet points help a communicator focus on key ideas and identify the "bones" of his or her argument. Bullets can get an audience thinking in terms of categories and grouping multiple ideas under single headings: "Five Tips for Picking Out a Great Interview Suit," for instance. It helps to remember that there are five – or however many.

For public speakers, bullet points serve as prompts to extemporaneous speech, and are often more useful than a complete text. On the printed page, bullets "break up the gray," as we say in the world of publishing. They give the eye "relief."

Actually, paragraphs do the same thing, or were meant to. Here's what H.W. Fowler says in "Modern English Usage": "The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: 'Have you got that? If so, I'll go on to the next point....' A reader will address himself more readily to his task if he sees from the start that he will have breathing spaces from time to time than if what is before him looks like a marathon course."


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