What Does “Include” or “Including” Mean Before a List?

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  • Nancy Tuten

    21 January 2020

    What Does “Include” or “Including” Mean Before a List?

    The definition of the verb “to include” is not the same as the definition of the verb “to be.” By definition, if we use the word include or including before a list, we are telling the reader that the list is not exhaustive.

    What the Dictionaries Tell Us

    Reputable dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary, tell us that the verb include is not interchangeable 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.”

    Examples to Make the Point

    Consider the following sentences that preface a list with include:

    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.

    In sentence 1, the statement “the four central components of systemic reform include” is illogical if there are four components and the sentence lists all four of them.  Since the list in this sentence is exhaustive, the sentence should read “The four central components of systemic reform are . . . .

    Sentence 2 is also confusing and illogical. Because the sentence lists all six steps, the logical verb choice is are: “The six steps in the process . . . are the following.”

    These next two sentences illustrate how the meaning of a sentence changes when we switch from a form of to include to a form of to be:

    1. The crucial elements of the proposal include the statement of the purpose of the project and a description 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 the first sentence, the point made by the verb include is that the proposal has many “crucial elements” and that these two specific ones are merely two examples.

    In the second sentence, the verb are tells us that the proposal has exactly two “crucial elements,” and they are both described in this sentence.

    Here is a third 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 suggests 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.

    What about the Phrase “including but not limited to” in Legal Writing?

    Adding the phrase “but not limited to” to include or including creates a redundancy: the idea that a list is not limited to the examples provided is inherent in the meaning of the word include.

    We see the phrase “including but not limited to” especially in legal documents, which are often intentionally and excessively redundant in their attempt to prevent any conceivable misreading.  Since many people wrongly believe that a list following the word include is exhaustive, attorneys resort to redundancy to forestall even the remote possibility of a misinterpretation.

    That said, since we first published this article more than a decade ago, we have had attorneys and judges write to tell us that good writing is the same in any field and that even legal writing should avoid redundancies. Attorneys, judges, and other professionals in the field of law are frequent attendees of our seminars, and many of them concur as well.

    In every other professional context, however, we should avoid the redundant phrases “includes but is not limited to” and “including but not limited to,” just as we should take care to use including and includes only when offering a few examples and not an exhaustive list.

    Elsewhere on this site we provide guidelines for handling vertical lists (a.k.a. numbered or bulleted lists). The items in any list should be grammatically and logically parallel, and a colon is not always appropriate before every list.

    Copyright 2008 Get It Write. Revised 2020.

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