Ordering lists

The order of things in a list has meaning. Consider our old friend, the 2-no-1 template of emphasis:


This visual list imitates the form of what it describes; it’s a diagram of positions in a sentence, paragraph, section, or whole piece.

Let’s arrange those three items into bulleted lists, first, in the order they occur:
· Next most emphatic
· Not emphatic
· Most emphatic.

Increasing power:
· Not emphatic
· Next most emphatic
· Most emphatic.

Decreasing power, also alphabetical:
· Most emphatic
· Next most emphatic
· Not emphatic.

Psychological or political factors intrude. Although readers remember best whatever’s at the end, the bottom of a list has the lowest status, can even be insulting. Movie stars negotiate for first billing, not last; nobody campaigns for the middle.

You would not rearrange some traditional lists, except maybe for irony: the 12 Days of Christmas (chronological), the Ten Commandments (sacred), “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” (carved in granite). Obviously, you would not rearrange something inherently alphabetical, like Morse Code: A: dot dash; B: dash dot dot dot; C: dash dot dash dot, etc. Actually you might, to make the code easier to memorize by pairing opposites: A: dot dash; N: dash dot, etc.

The order you choose depends on what you’re writing about and what you want to emphasize.
[Got any anecdotes about subjects reacting to list placement?]

Published in: on June 21, 2009 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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