Semantic line breaks

How to get a single sentence per line


How to convert documents such that the output has exactly one sentence per line.


Albert Krewinkel


October 30, 2022

Line breaks usually have no semantic meaning within a Markdown paragraph. However, using line breaks to mark the end of a sentece can help with productivity for various reasons.1 Documents with one sentence per line are also called “ventilated prose”, and the Write the {Ascii}Docs website has a good article on that topic.

A question came up in a Slack channel, asking whether it was possible to convert existing Markdown docs to this style. Naturally, the answer is “pandoc can do that”, but that isn’t obvious here.

The solution that I came up with is centered around pandoc’s SoftBreak AST element. Pandoc uses SoftBreak elements internally to mark the place where line breaks occured in the input, but only if those breaks should be treated like spaces in most situations. The way to make those breaks visible in the output is to call pandoc with --wrap=preserve – only then will a line break in the input result in a break in the output in the same location.

$ printf 'Hello\npandoc' | pandoc --to=markdown
⇒ Hello pandoc

$ printf 'Hello\npandoc' | pandoc --to=markdown --wrap=preserve
⇒ Hello
⇒ pandoc

We are going to use SoftBreak for semantic line breaks, so the first step is to get rid of the SoftBreak elements created during parsing. A Lua filter can do so with

SoftBreak = function () return pandoc.Space() end

Then we check for strings that end with a period and are followed by a space. The space in such a combination is then turned into a SoftBreak.

local function semantic_line_feeds (el)
  local inlines = el.content
  for i = 2, #inlines do
    if inlines[i].t == 'Space' and
       inlines[i-1].t == 'Str' and
       inlines[i-1].text:match '%.$' then
      inlines[i] = pandoc.SoftBreak()
  return el

return {
  -- remove soft breaks inserted during parsing.
  {SoftBreak = function () return pandoc.Space() end},
  -- insert semantic soft breaks
  {Para = semantic_line_feeds, Plain = semantic_line_feeds},

This filter can then be combined with the --wrap=preserve option to get the desired semantic line breaks.

printf 'This. And that.' | pandoc -L semlf.lua --wrap=preserve
 And that.

There, mission accomplished.2


  1. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see why people might like the concept.↩︎

  2. There are some cases in which the filter does not give the correct result, for example when using American-style punctuation after quotes, or when a full sentence is emphasized. It should be possible to fix the filter for these edge cases, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort: the presented solution should work fine for 95 % of all use cases.↩︎