More on Line Breaks

Pierre Igot took my little text-wrapping gaffe from the other day, and proceeded to turn it into what he ostensibly called “constructive criticism” as to why people might want to use manual line breaks. Frankly, it looks a lot more like flame bait than constructive criticism, particularly in that his criticism is based on obfuscating the distinction between knowing why someone might want to use a text-wrapping break and knowing how many people would actually want to use one in practice. Moreover, saying that I don’t know how many people would want to use manual line breaks (Win Word actually uses the term “text-wrapping break”) doesn’t even mean that I think the number would likely be small. After all, if I thought the number of potentially interested users was small, I wouldn’t have bothered to blog about it in the first place.

Normally I’d just let this sort of thing roll off my back, but in his rush to offer criticism through the vehicle of a couple of contrived examples, Pierre actually manages to offer some bad advice. He cites three cases where people might want use a manual line break, but two of them are predicated on people doing something stylistically bad in the first place: having a title or a heading that’s too long to fit on one line or accommodate page numbers in a table of contents entry.

In both cases, you’re probably better off trying to rewrite the offending title or heading than trying to force a line break to make it look nice. The TOC entry suggestion is particularly bad, because you’re inserting a break within a field. Should you later decide that rewriting the offending heading is necessary, your manual line break in the TOC entry will get blown away when you update the table of contents field. A far better solution would be to modify the font size of the appropriate TOC styles in order to get the offending heading to fit.

Pierre’s throw-away example, poetry, is the one example where inserting a text-wrapping break makes sense, because it follows the general rule for using manual line breaks, i.e. where the content itself requires that lines be broken at specific locations while still maintaining paragraph semantics across those lines. It’s a throw-away example, because, well, there just aren’t all that many poets out there who are likely to be in any way concerned about the difference between line breaks and paragraph breaks.

None of this means that manual line breaks aren’t useful for a number of different users. In fact, one of the more common instances might be where one wants to include some explanatory text for an individual item within a list without breaking the list. It might look something like this:

  1. This is a list item.
    You might want to insert what looks like a paragraph within a list of items. You can achieve this effect by using a manual line break between the text of the list item and the explanatory text in the paragraph.
  2. This is also a list item.
  3. This is the last item.

Using a manual line break between the text of the list item itself and the explanatory text keeps the list intact without having to mess with continuing a previous list or adjusting the indents of the explanatory paragraph to match the beginning of the text in the list item. It also has the benefit of keeping everything aligned properly should you wish to indent the list to another outline level.

Another case where I’ve seen people use manual line breaks is with technical documents that get indexed and cross-referenced within a document management system. Quite often, cross-references, i.e. pointers to other documents within the document management system, are inserted to refer to specific statements within a paragraph. A common way to insert these cross-references is to sandwich them between two manual line breaks, and mark everything between the line breaks, and the line breaks themselves, as “Hidden” text, or, better yet, mark the text with a user-defined character style that includes the “hidden” attribute. If someone wants to see the cross-references, they simply click on the Show/Hide ¶ button, and the manual line breaks help the cross-references to stand out from the paragraphs that contain them.

Note that both of the examples I’ve cited follow the same general rule that applies to poetry and the programming code examples: the content requires that lines be broken in specific locations while still maintaining paragraph semantics. Neither of Pierre’s two contrived examples follows this rule. So take Pierre’s advice with a grain of salt, and keep this rule in mind as you use manual line breaks. If you find yourself wanting to use a manual line break for reasons not based on the actual content, then consider other means to resolve the problem before using a manual line break.