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I want to break a sentence into multiple paragraphs. This is a simple example:

As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell if Captain Bob —

Slubgob, the alien explorer —

and Boris, the spy, can save the Earth from certain doom.

Is this punctuation incorrect, or confusing? If it is unacceptable, what would be a better way to do this?

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    Hold on, who is the Alien explorer? Captain Bob, or Slubgob? You have just made it even more confusing. Or are there three party members now? If so, just use commas instead of hyphens. – aaa90210 Jun 3 '15 at 1:36
  • This question has a lot in common with the recently closed question Em-dashes or ellipsis over multiple paragraphs. In the new example, it seems to me that it would not be unreasonable for a reader to infer that the em dashes after the first and second lines serve to break out the second line as a parenthetical that identifies Captain Bob as Slubgob, the alien explorer. Using semicolons in place of the em dashes would at least avoid the conclusion that Captain Bob Slubgob is an alien explorer. – Sven Yargs Jun 3 '15 at 7:48
  • @Will Briggs Stickler point I prefer en dashes. Equally acceptable here. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 3 '15 at 8:20
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is essentially writing advice. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 3 '15 at 8:20
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Couldn't you just reverse the titles and not have to include the name of the spy?

As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell if the underworld spy and Captain Bob - the alien explorer - together, can save the Earth.

Also, I'd say to settle on either dashes or commas.

As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell if the underworld spy and Captain Bob, the alien explorer, together, can save the Earth.

  • (This is in response to aaa90210, but I can't comment on a comment because I'm a n00b on here.) – kaylamcfly Jun 3 '15 at 1:13
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Don't use double hyphen.

As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell if Captain Bob - the alien explorer - and the underworld spy, together, can save the Earth.

There is still a problem with this sentence, which is it sounds like Bob could be both the explorer and the spy. You need to add the name of the spy, e.g.

As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell if Captain Bob - the alien explorer - and Tom, the underworld spy, together, can save the Earth.

  • @WillBriggs well then my second point is the only real issue. Are you breaking it over multiple lines for a reason? Is that supposed to have something to do with the hyphens? – aaa90210 Jun 3 '15 at 1:10
  • I want the emphasis of having these three characters on separate lines, and the whitespace to break up a block of text. But the question here is just about the punctuation when broken over multiple paragraphs: legit, and clear? Thanks for helping already with the "clear" bit! – Maverick Jun 3 '15 at 1:28
  • "characters"? You just mean you want to split the sentance across 3 lines? "Whitespace"? I am not even sure what you are referring to here...the new lines? "punctuation"? Do you mean the hyphens? If so, just say so, otherwise it is not clear what you are asking. Clarify what you want. Also, using a hyphen at the end of a line is usually used to indicate a word is being broken up across lines, in your case, you are using hyphens to introduce a sub-fact, and as @WBT pointed out, you could easily use commas here as well. – aaa90210 Jun 3 '15 at 1:34
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Consider using commas instead of dashes there.
As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell if Captain Bob, Slubgob the alien explorer, and the underworld spy, can save the Earth [together].

This assumes there are three characters. If Slubgob is the spy, cut the comma after explorer and article before underworld.

If these are fictional characters with flexible names, consider changing one of their names to avoid confusion between Bob and Slubgob.

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    Is that one, two, or three people? Are any of Cap'n Bob, the alien explorer, and the underworld spy the same being? – Drew Jun 3 '15 at 1:31
  • WBT, I notice that your solution is not broken into multiple paragraphs, which is what my question relates to. If it were, would your solution of using commas still be correct? Thanks. – Maverick Jun 3 '15 at 2:50
  • You could add some line breaks if that helps in whatever application this is going to be used in (e.g. a script for a voiceover of or captions on a trailer), but you can't split one sentence into multiple paragraphs. The commas give you the pause and separation that I think you're looking for. – WBT Jun 3 '15 at 12:41
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You cannot break a sentence across multiple paragraphs. I do not mean you should not; I mean you cannot. What you are proposing to do is to split a sentence into several lines of text, with white space between the lines. It is still one sentence, and it is still one paragraph.

That said, I suggest this:

As the clock ticks down to the finish, only time will tell {if/whether}

— Captain Bob

— Slubgob, the alien explorer and

— Boris, the spy

can save the Earth from [certain] doom.

(I put "certain" in brackets, because if our heroes might manage to avert that doom, it isn't certain, is it? So if I were to choose another word to modify "doom", I would use impending.)

(By the way, this not a matter of punctuation, it is strictly about typesetting; as such, it really doesn't belong on this SE.)

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The Chicago Manual of Style has answers (sort of).

6.124 Vertical lists -- punctuation and format.

There is an example like this:

each item on its own line

the introduction being a complete sentence followed by a colon

Section 6.125 Vertical lists punctuated as a sentence. The example, including the lines, form a complete sentence.

The description in that section also states

  • that a semicolon may be used to separate the items;

  • that a conjunction just before the last item is optional; and

  • that the final item should end in a period.

It also says that there's no difference in punctuation whether you use numbers or bullets, but doesn't address whether you can use neither -- which seems a crucial point.

It adds, "Such lists, often better run in to the text [that means, not broken between lines], should be set vertically only if the context demands that they be highlighted."

The Business Writing blog looks at the question from the perspective of different style manuals. The Chicago Manual of Style Online has an FAQ on how to apply its rules.


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