Lists seem too easy to mess up, but sometimes it just happens:  you’re writing a big paragraph and it comes time for a sentence that includes a list of actions, names or items and you roll through them with little thought to how they sound, the tense you use or the way they will be read.

Often, lists are written in more casual correspondence that isn’t proofread. 

So here are the six most common mistakes I could identify and how to fix them. 

Just so, you know, you can make a mental note, or whatever.

MISTAKE #1:  Wrong Tense Usage. 

This happens when discussing multiple actions taken. 

We organized the pallbearers, talked to the minister and bury the casket in the cemetery. 

The first two verbs (‘organized’ and ‘talked’) are both in the past tense, while the last (‘bury’) is in the present tense.  Keep the tenses the same or risk confusing your reader.

MISTAKE #2:  Inconsistent Formatting

You don’t want one item in your list to stand out, so make sure they’re all similarly formatted. 

Mr. Smith is survived by his six children:  Sandra H. Blount, Harvey K. Smith, Willifred R. Stacey, Bucky, Elizabeth L. Smith and Geoffrey James Hardwick Smith, III.

While the last name (Geoffrey James Hardwick Smith, III) may be slightly longer than the others, the worst offender is ‘Bucky’ because it breaks the rhythm of the sentence.  Either list Bucky’s full name or move him to the end and add a modifier like “and his son, Bucky.”

MISTAKE #3:    Forgetting Conjunctions

Conjuctions are the words that link thoughts and lists together.  Like ‘and,’ ‘or’ and ‘but.’

We will need to photograph the flower arrangements, greet the attendees, set up the music stands, escort the family, make coffee.

When you read the last sentence and get to ‘make coffee,’ you expect more.  The sentence leaves you hanging because of the abrupt ending.  Drop the comma (or don’t if your adventurous or from England) and add the word ‘and’ before ‘make coffee.’

MISTAKE #4:  Too Many Items

Sometimes you want to list much more than can really fit in a simple list and you confuse your reader.

To complete the death certificate, we will need to know your mother’s place of birth, social security number, date of birth, her mother’s full maiden name, her father’s full name, her parents’ birthplaces, her occupation, the industry in which she worked, the highest grade she completed, her current marital status and your father’s military ID number.

This is confusing.  A list this long (any list longer than four or five items, really) needs to be vertically listed, like this: 

To complete your mother’s death certificate, we will need to know her:

place of birth
social security number
date of birth 
her mother’s full maiden name
her father’s full name
her parents’ birthplaces
the industry in which she worked
the highest grade she completed
current marital status
your father’s military ID number

MISTAKE #5:  Complicated Items

Don’t list items that require a lot of explanation or unusual punctuation.

New Orleans, Louisiana, Dubuque, Iowa, Anchorage, Alaska, Orlando, Florida, New York, New York, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and Houston, Texas.

These items should be separated or listed another way.  You could use another word, like ‘in’ so that it would read “New Orleans in Lousiana, Dubuque in Iowa…” which might become confusing.  Or you could use the semi-colon, as in “New Orleans, Louisiana; Dubuque, Iowa; Anchorage…” which is accurate but looks strange.

MISTAKE #6:  Mismatched Verb Forms

Gerunds confuse most people.  Simply, gerunds are the verbs that end with ‘ing’.  They should not be mixed with other verb forms except by trained professionals.  This is a common mistake on resumes.

Work Experience:  Trained new apprentices, house removals, answered phones, escorted families, digging graves, set up catered lunches and making photocopies.

The example mixes tenses and misuses gerunds.  Words like ‘trained’ and ‘set up’ are past tense, while ‘digging’ and ‘making’ are both present tense and the phrase ‘house removals’ doesn’t even have a verb!

A better choice would be to change ‘digging graves’ to a phrase like ‘in charge of digging graves’ or ‘dug graves.’