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Using the Verb Include to Preface a List

Consider the following sentences, both of which use the verb include. Are they logical and clear?

  1. Committee meetings will focus on the four central components of systemic reform, which include leadership, policy, delivery infrastructure and networks, and employee performance.

  2. The six steps in the process of formatting text as small capital letters in MS Word include the following: (1) typing the text in all lowercase letters, (2) selecting (i.e., highlighting) the text, (3) clicking the "Format" menu, (4) clicking "Font" in that menu, (5) clicking the "Small caps" box in the "Effects" list, and (6) clicking the "Close" button.

Here is the bottom line:

  • We should use the verb include to preface a list that is not exhaustive--that is, one naming only a limited number of the items that could possibly be named in the particular context.

  • We should use the appropriate form of the verb to be (e.g., is/are, was/were, will be, has/have been) to preface a list that is exhaustive--that is, one naming all of items that are possible to name in the particular context.

If we read the definitions of include in reputable dictionaries--including Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, 2003) and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition, 2000)--we see that the verb include is in no way synonymous with the verb are. The American Heritage states that include means "to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group." Likewise Merriam-Webster's emphasizes that "Include suggests the containment of something as a constituent, component, or subordinate part of a larger whole."

Thus, in sentence 1 above, the statement "the four central components of systemic reform include" contradicts itself. If there are indeed four components and the sentence lists all four of them, then the list is exhaustive and the sentence should read "The four central components of systemic reform are."

Sentence 2 is also confusing and illogical because it says, in effect, that "the six steps include the following six steps." Because the list is exhaustive-that is, the sentence lists all six steps-the logical verb choice is are: "The six steps in the process . . . are the following."

Consider these sentences as examples:

  1. The crucial elements of the proposal include the statement explaining the purpose of the project and the breakdown of the specific ways in which the funds are to be spent.

  2. The crucial elements of the proposal are a statement of the purpose of the project and a description of the specific ways in which the funds are to be spent.

In sentence 1 above, the point made by the verb include is that the proposal has many "crucial elements" and that these two specific ones are examples of those numerous elements. In sentence 2, the verb are tells us that the proposal has exactly two "crucial elements" and that they are the ones described here.

Here is another set of examples:

  1. Keynote speakers for the conference will include Barkley Amos, president of the National Center for Animal Rescue, and Dr. Gooding Brown, chairman of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pawtucket.

  2. Keynote speakers for the conference will be Barkley Amos, president of the National Center for Animal Rescue, and Dr. Gooding Brown, chairman of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pawtucket.

The first sentence above tells us that the conference will have more than two keynote speakers. The second sentence tells us that the conference will have only these two keynote speakers.

Here is yet another set of examples:

  1. Required reports include the checklist for the professional development quality assurance indicators and the summary on the use of funds for courses and instructional materials.

  2. Required reports are the checklist for the professional development quality assurance indicators and the summary on the use of funds for courses and instructional materials.
The first sentence above says that many reports are required and that two of them are "the checklist" and "the summary." The second sentence says that exactly two reports are required, namely "the checklist" and "the summary."

One final note:

We should not add the phrase "but not limited to" when we use either the verb include or the verbal including because to do so will create a redundancy: the idea that what is being spoken about is "not limited to what is actually said" is inherent in the meaning of the word include itself.

The only instance in which the phrase "includes but is not limited to" is acceptable is in a legal document* or a piece of writing that seeks to resemble one. Legal documents* are often intentionally and excessively redundant in their attempt to prevent every conceivable misreading of a passage. Because many people do believe that a list following the word include is exhaustive, lawyers must resort to redundancy to forestall even the remote possibility of a misinterpretation. In nearly every other professional context, however, we should avoid such phrases as "includes but is not limited to" and "including but not limited to."

[*Note: Since we published this newsletter, we have had a number of lawyers write to tell us that good writing is the same in any field, and that even legal writing should not employ such redundancies.]

2008 Get It Write

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