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A writer can either choose to use bullets or else stick to conventional (or in certain cases non-conventional) numbering. Are there set guidelines about when to use what? Is the use of numbering preferred over bullets in more professional settings (example, academic writing, technical reports, theses, etc.) or is it left to the choice of the writer?

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They are called an "ordered" and an "unordered" list. You use the ordered list, if there is some order to the items. If the order of the items is irrelevant, you use the unordered list. – what Mar 3 '14 at 20:41
up vote 10 down vote accepted

In everyday writing, (say on the web, or an email) I'd use bullets where possible. I think they're more accessible and quicker to scan. Unless there were some reason to actually number things. The Wikipedia style manual spells this out well:

Use numbers rather than bullets only if:

  • A need to refer to the elements by number may arise;
  • The sequence of the items is critical; or
  • The numbering has some independent meaning, for example in a listing of musical tracks.

In academic or tech writing, the governing style sheets or style guides (MLA, APA, etc.) should always be consulted. I'll leave it to our resident tech writers to provide more detail, but I'd consult those resources and only then use the logic above: Use my own preference for bullet points unless there's a reason not to.

It's worth noting that style guides all have specific requirements for how lists are used and formatted. APA at least seems to boil down to similar but more detailed advice as the wikipedia style guide; i.e., have a good reason for using the format you employ.

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I agree with this answer. Specifically, when order matters, such as the sequence of steps in a procedure (do this, then do that, etc), always use numbering unless you have a style guide that tells you otherwise (and if you do, I'm curious whose it is as that would be unusual). – Monica Cellio Mar 3 '14 at 18:07
@MonicaCellio - I think that MLA prohibits bulleted lists, but I don't own a copy to check that. Chicago seems to prefer numbered lists. – Neil Fein Mar 3 '14 at 23:35

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