List formats

Sometimes, you will see lists written inline, like this:

The first five leaders of the Stoic school were 1) Zeno of Citium, 2) Cleanthes, 3) Chrysippus, 4) Zeno of Tarsus and 5) Diogenes of Babylon.

We can instead format it as a block:

The first five leaders of the Stoic school were

  1. Zeno of Citium;
  2. Cleanthes;
  3. Chrysippus;
  4. Zeno of Tarsus; and
  5. Diogenes of Babylon.

(You can also use unordered lists if the order truly doesn’t matter. But I find that it often does, or at least that having numbers makes the list easier to navigate.)

Block-formatted lists are often better because they

  1. are easier to read; and
  2. stand out on the page, making them easier to see when skimming or looking for them.

I also think they are easier to remember, but I haven’t tested it.

Why do people sometimes write lists inline instead? I have a couple of theories:

  1. Block-formatting somewhat breaks the flow when reading. In some cases, such as when writing fiction, this can be a good argument for using inline lists.
  2. Inline formatting saves space. This can be a good reason, but I think it’s rarely the case.
  3. They don’t know how to format lists properly. Look it up. It’s easy.
  4. They can’t be bothered. This is clearly a bad reason.
  5. It kinda looks sophisticated with the numbers inline with the text like that. Aim to be read and understood, not to seem fancy.

Conclusion

Format lists as blocks unless reading flow and/or saving space trumps all other concerns.