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I'm in need of a complex sentence that lists out three requirements, and the facts that satisfy those requirements. Here's an example of what I'm referring to, using the "motivation, means, and opportunity" elements of a murder:

The prosecution had all the evidence they needed for a murder conviction. Alfonso had the motivation to see his friend dead—full control of the company—,the means to kill him—a whole lab with poisonous chemicals—, and the opportunity to do so—the dinner party.

Is this a proper emdash and comma usage? I could use a semicolon instead, like so:

The prosecution had all the evidence they needed for a murder conviction. Alfonso had the motivation to see his friend dead—full control of the company; the means to kill him—a whole lab with poisonous chemicals; and the opportunity to do so—the dinner party.

But then the three requirements get mixed up with facts, visually, making the list harder to parse. A final option would be using parenthesis:

The prosecution had all the evidence they needed for a murder conviction. Alfonso had the motivation to see his friend dead (full control of the company), the means to kill him (a whole lab with poisonous chemicals), and the opportunity to do so (the dinner party).

But the use of parenthesis here seems out of place with the drama of the facts. Is it proper to use emdashes and commas as I did in the first example? What would be the best construction of the sentence?

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  • I definitely wouldn't put a comma (or period) after a dash like that – only a question mark or maybe an exclamation mark. – Bradd Szonye Sep 7 '13 at 0:10
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I would go ahead with the dashes and commas, but drop the 2nd dash for each alternative.

The prosecution had all the evidence they needed for a murder conviction. Alfonso had the motivation to see his friend dead—full control of the company, the means to kill him—a whole lab with poisonous chemicals, and the opportunity to do so—the dinner party.

The single dash is all that is needed to offset, unless the phrases incorporated commas themselves, in which case you'd need to go to semicolons I suppose. The semicolon reads as a "full stop", so would break the "drama" flow you're looking for about as much as the parentheses do.

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The dramatic starts and stops make this a long and complex narration. Why not break it up?

The prosecution had all the evidence they needed for a murder conviction. Alfonso had the motivation to see his friend dead — full control of the company. He had the means to kill him — a whole lab with poisonous chemicals. And he had the opportunity to do so — the dinner party.

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  • Good solution. This avoids the biggest problem I saw in the original sentence: It's not clear whether the dashes are subordinate to the commas or vice versa. – Bradd Szonye Sep 7 '13 at 0:09

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