Ordering Items in Series


Woman writing a list.

You’re writing a series of items, and you’re not sure what order to put them in. Do you write “A, B, and C” or “A, C, and B”? What is the best order for items in a series?

Here are two approaches I use when evaluating the order of items in a series or list, both adapted from 300 Days of Better Writing.

APPROACH ONE: CLARITY

From the readers’ perspective, series can be confusing. They have to figure out what connects to what and where each item begins and ends. (This is one reason why I recommend putting commas after every item but the last.) Series are most confusing when some of the items are complex.

Example 1. Consider this sentence.

“The plan called for 25 people, 2 weeks, and the expertise, obviously, of the human resources department.”

The complex item here is “the expertise, obviously, of the human resources department.” If we write this item as the first or second item in the series, the potential for reader confusion increases. The reader will have to decide where the item begins and ends because of the extra commas.

Putting this item at the end removes any confusion about where it ends (because nothing follows it), and the sentence is clearer.

Example 2. Here’s another example. Let’s say that your series will have the following three items:

  1. “a covered area for fans, such as benches under a canopy”
  2. “good parking”
  3. “clean bathrooms”

The first item above is the most complex. If we write it as the first or second item in the list, the reader may think the part after the comma is a new item. The reader will figure out that the final phrase in the item is an explanation of the covered area (probably), but this is more work for the reader than necessary, and people reading quickly might misinterpret your words.

To write in a straightforward and easy-to-understand manner, place that item at the end of the series, resulting in the following sentence.

“A softball arena should contain good parking, clean bathrooms, and a covered area for fans, such as benches under a canopy.”

Could we have used semicolons between the items in the series, thus preventing confusion caused by the commas? Sure. I could have written “A softball arena should contain good parking; a covered area for fans, such as benches under a canopy; and clean bathrooms.”

With the items in this order, the sentence sounds choppy because the order creates two breaks in the flow of ideas, one break after “fans” and another after “canopy.” With the complex item last, the sentence is smoother and feels more complete. By putting that item at the end, therefore, we have increased not only clarity but also elegance.

APPROACH TWO: IMPACT

Consider these three ideas. 1) People tend to remember and respond to what they last hear. 2) Series create an expectation, an emotional build-up, that is resolved by the final item. 3) Words at the end of a sentence have more impact than words within a sentence.

When we combine these three ideas, we find that we can use a series to create impact and emphasize a final point. In short, the final item in the series will have more emotional and mental weight than the preceding items.

For example, these two sample sentences emphasize different points:

“We shall spare no cost, overlook no detail, and forget no promise.”
“We shall forget no promise, overlook no detail, and spare no cost.”

In the first sentence, “forget no promise” has the most emphasis. In the second, “spare no cost” has the most.

Sentence structure is important in persuasive writing. When considering the order of items in the series, I ask which item is the most important, which item I want to emphasize. Then I put it at the end where it will create the most impact.


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