Use Verbal Phrases in Bullets, Lists, and Outlines

Posted on by Brooke

Wherever my students have needed to write bulleted lists or other short phrases, I have found myself urging them to use verbal phrases rather than just nouns or noun phrases. This has led me to review and change the way I write outlines, lists, presentation slides, and other works calling for short, undeveloped prose.

Student work

Most of the written projects I assign call for paragraphs of developed prose, rather than outlines or bullet points. But sometimes an outline is unavoidable; our institution requires an outline as part of a student's Masters thesis proposal, for instance. And occasionally, I will offer an assignment that asks for short phrases rather that developed sentences. For example:

  • a presentation whose slides follow the 1/1/5 rule of "no more than five words per slide";
  • a worksheet to be filled in with short phrases;
  • a list of "critical issues" regarding a particular biblical text.

So for example, if the student is writing a Venn diagram comparing the birth narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, I may see items like these. My proposed improvements follow in parentheses.

  • the angel Gabriel (> angel Gabriel appears to Mary)
  • the star (> star guides three wise men)
  • shepherds (> shepherds receive a revelation)

Look how much more content comes to the fore by the inclusion of a verb (often with its object). Similarly, a list of critical issues surrounding a biblical text may look like this:

  • redaction (> vocab changes suggest redaction)
  • genre (> formal elements point to novella genre)
  • the word "virgin/young woman" (> meaning of alma is disputed)

(Note that, in the last example, I offer a passive verbal phrase. This is still verbal! Don't make me go all Pullum on you about the misunderstood and maligned passive verbal construction.)

Again, in the list of critical issues, the inclusion of a verb forces the student to actually articulate the critical issue, rather than merely evoke it with a noun or noun phrase.

I began asking students to incorporate verbal phrases into their bullets and outlines simply so that I could better understand what in the world they believed they were doing. The results have been excellent: often a piece that looked shoddy in its first draft proved to be really well and carefully conceived once I could see the "verbs behind the nouns."

Professional work and productivity

Only as a result of all this have I found myself looking at the outlines and bulleted lists that I produce in my own work, whether for others or, more often, for my own consumption. I find it much easier now to "keep the thread" from one stage of a written piece to the next, instead of staring dumbly at my pre-writing and wondering what the heck my ideas had been.

Some of my readers will know of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology, or will use a task-management tool like OmniFocus. When creating Projects and Tasks in a productivity scheme or tool, it is essential to give them names that have verbs: not "Jill's thesis" but rather "Read Jill's thesis" or "Annotate Jill's thesis" or "Return Jill's thesis"; not "Presentation" but rather "Brainstorm presentation," "Outline presentation," "Collect graphics for presentation," and so on. A noun phrase just sits there and stares vacantly at you. A verbal phrase pokes you with a stick and issues a command.

What is your experience with short phrases in outlines, presentation slides, task management, or wherever you read and use them? Do you do okay with noun phrases alone, or have you also found that you need a verb to bring things into focus, whether in others' writing or in your own?

[Use Verbal Phrases in Bullets, Lists, and Outlines was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/04/09. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]