Parenthe-seize the Divided List!

Divided Lists

When we write a list within a sentence, we often want to make the structure absolutely clear by numbering or lettering the items in the series. For students and junior scholars, the divided list is even more important, as it is the well-known writers who can assume that their readers won’t abandon overly complex, understructured passages.

When dividing a list, make sure that:

  • numbers or letters appear within a set of parentheses (rather than simply following the number or letter with one parenthesis)
  • elements are grammatically parallel (all nouns, for instance)
  • appropriate punctuational dividers are used
  • the imposed structure illuminates rather than obscures meaning
  • the divisions do not unintentionally imply hierarchy

That itself could be formatted as a divided list within a sentence:

The key aspects of serializing are the following: (1) numbers or letters appear within a set of parentheses; (2) elements are grammatically parallel; (3) appropriate punctuational dividers are used; (4) the imposed structure illuminates rather than obscures meaning; and (5) the divisions do not unintentionally imply hierarchy.

Let’s say that Michel Foucault wanted to make this complicated sentence a bit more organized to the reading eye:

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outer side, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.

—Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1995), 200

We might insert letters thusly:

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: (a) at the periphery, an annular building; (b) at the centre, a tower; (c) this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; (d) the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; (e) they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; (f) the other, on the outer side, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.

We’ve chosen letters as opposed to numbers so as not to imply a hierarchy. Numbers would work as well, however, as they might in this example:

It is opposed, therefore, term by term, to a judicial penality whose essential function is to refer, not to a set of observable phenomena, but to a corpus of laws and texts that must be remembered; that operates not by differentiating individuals, but by specifying acts according to a number of general categories; not by hierarchizing, but quite simply by bringing into play the binary opposition of the permitted and the forbidden; not by homogenizing, but by operating the division, acquired once and for all, of condemnation.

—Discipline and Punish, 183

This passage can be structured in the following way:

It is opposed, therefore, term by term, to a judicial penality (1) whose essential function is to refer, not to a set of observable phenomena, but to a corpus of laws and texts that must be remembered; (2) that operates not by differentiating individuals, but by specifying acts according to a number of general categories; (3) not by hierarchizing, but quite simply by bringing into play the binary opposition of the permitted and the forbidden; (4) not by homogenizing, but by operating the division, acquired once and for all, of condemnation.

Now we can see clearly that he mentions four qualities of the “penality” in question. If this were our own writing, we would probably also want to impose some parallelism so that each item in the series has the same grammatical structure (beginning with that, perhaps), but, as this is the inimitable Foucault we’re dealing with, we’ll leave it as is.

The following list is made much clearer by its use of numbered divisions:

Machines (1) are made up of parts, (2) give particulate information about the world, (3) are based on order and regularity (perform operations in an ordered sequence), (4) operate in a limited, precisely defined domain of the total context, and (5) give us power over nature.

—Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 234

Here we see that a complex divided list need not be separated by semicolons, even when items contain internal commas. The decision whether to use semicolons or commas is a subjective one.

One could, as Judith Butler does, foreshadow the number of elements in a divided list.

This Lacanian trajectory will be shown to become problematic on (at least) two counts: (1) the morphological scheme which becomes the epistemic condition for the world of objects and others to appear is marked as masculine, and, hence, becomes the basis for an anthropocentric and androcentric epistemological imperialism (this is one criticism of Lacan offered by Luce Irigaray and supplies the compelling reason for her project to articulate a feminine imaginary); and (2) the idealization of the body as a center of control sketched in “The Mirror Stage” is rearticulated in Lacan’s notion of the phallus as that which controls significations in discourse, in “The Signification of the Phallus” (1958).

Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 73

Clearly, the complexity of Butler’s prose makes the numbering rather useful. The structure would have been buried if not for the divisions. She actually has the option, since each problematic “count” is an independent clause and then some, to separate the elements with periods rather than using her colon-semicolon approach. See, for example, what Claude Lévi-Strauss has done here:

Let me recall, then, some of the conclusions that were reached about the skunk in The Raw and the Cooked. (1) In both North and South America, this member of the family of the mustelidae and the opossum form a pair of opposites. (2) North American myths expressly associate the opossum with the rotten, the skunk with the burnt. At the same time, the skunk is shown to have a direct affinity with the rainbow and has the power to resuscitate the dead. (3) In South America, on the other hand…

From Honey to Ashes (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 80

The list continues from there. Each numbered element contains at least one complete sentence.

Armed with the five key issues to remember and informed by these admittedly verbose examples, out we go into the wide world, where we will divide lists with skill and glee.

Please note that APA style indicates that elements in any series within a sentence or paragraph should be identified by lowercase letters within parentheses.

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