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I have a document where someone is suggesting we have a bulleted list with only one item. That sounds absurd to me. Doesn't a "list" imply more than one item?

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4 Answers

Speaking as a programmer, no. A list can even contain no items at all.

Edit: on a more serious note, let's say I take a piece of paper and a pen, and make my grocery list. And then it just so happens that all I need is milk.

That piece of paper with a single word on it would still be my grocery list, and not my grocery word.

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To expand on this: logically (as RegDwight says) the answer is no. Grammatically, the answer is no. But stylistically, depending on your field, it might be frowned upon. –  Kosmonaut Sep 1 '10 at 21:40
    
Yes, wearing my programmer hat I have no problem with it. –  Larsenal Sep 1 '10 at 22:03
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You may not have noticed, but this isn't StackOverflow. It is a writing question. –  JohnFx Sep 2 '10 at 14:29
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@JohnFx: I would say that this is rather a typography question, and typography historically involves a certain amount of black magic. (I'm also not sure if typography is within the scope of this site, though I do find the question interesting and would vote to reopen if it were closed.) Anyway, the question was "Doesn't a 'list' imply more than one item?", and I provided two examples where it in fact does not. –  RegDwigнt Sep 2 '10 at 15:07
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@RegDwight - That is the exact question, but the context clearly states it is in the context of someone making editing comments on a document. –  JohnFx Sep 2 '10 at 18:16
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Sounds like you are getting hung up on semantics.

Sure, it may not technically be a "list" at that point, but unless you are referring to it as such in the narrative, why fight it? I mean, it is just a formatting element at that point and technically not a grammar issue.

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Maybe you're right about me being hung up on semantics. Imagine if it were a numbered list, and you just had the numeral one followed by a sentence. Seems odd. –  Larsenal Sep 1 '10 at 22:06
    
Sure, but you said it was a bulleted list, not a numbered list. So I fail to see how that is relevant. –  JohnFx Sep 2 '10 at 4:57
    
Questions Larsenal has asked on english.stackexghange: 1. english.stackexchange.com/q/2370/975 –  msw Sep 2 '10 at 5:06
    
A list with one item is still a list. Though it may not look that good in writing of course. –  Johan Jan 26 '11 at 15:43
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A list can have only one item, or even no items. However, you're doing more than just typing in some text into your document: you're creating something that people need to read and understand. For that purpose, it may very well be absurd to only have one item in your list; you have to judge based on the context of what you're writing and the expected audience. Conversely, you could use a single-item list as emphasis.

For example, if this bullet-point ends up displayed at the bottom of the page and the preceding text is ambiguous about how many items there may be, then it would be natural to become confused when arriving on the next page and a new paragraph.

Particularly if this is a rough draft to which you expect to later add items, then you should keep the solitary bullet-point; polish in later revisions as the content becomes more concrete.

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It may be grammatically correct, or correct in certain casual documents such as a grocery list (I am unaware of any grocery-list police), but is not a best or even good practice in more formal documents (anything involving an outline, for instance)—with one exception, discussed below.

Here's a correct example (I use numbers/letters only for ease of reference; a bulleted list follows the same logic):

Foods
1. Vegetables
    a. carrots
    b. potatoes
2. Fruits
    a. strawberries
    b. oranges
3. Grains
    a. rice
    b. wheat

Here's an example of what not to do:

U.S. History
1. Pre-Revolution
    a. Early Settlers
2. Revolution
    a. "No Taxation without Representation"
    b. Colonial Warfare
3. Constitutional Congress
4. Civil War
    a. States' Rights
    b. Slavery

The problem with the second example (where the first item has only one sub-item) is that without a second sub-item, the two levels are essentially equal. If the only thing I'm going to say about pre-Revolutionary times is to discuss the early settlers, then those terms are both referring to the same topic and I'm being redundant in the outline. Note item 3, which has no sub-items. That is the correct way to handle the case of only one item: pick one term and put it at the appropriate level of the outline.

Of course, as Roger Pate says, in a rough draft there may be an overriding reason to make a one-item list (as a visual cue to think further about the list), but this would need to be corrected if you never add to the list. This is the one exception mentioned above.

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