How to break lines

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One subtitle can be composed of one or two lines. In languages based on the Latin script, the subtitle must be broken into two lines if it's longer than 42 characters (because a longer line is more difficult to read than a subtitle composed of two lines, and some offline players may not display longer lines correctly). "Line-breaking" refers to choosing the place where the line is broken, and also, where to end the whole subtitle. To make a line break in Amara, hit Shift+Enter. Note: The maximum number of lines per subtitle is 2.

Generally, each line should be broken only after a linguistic "whole" or "unit," no matter if it's the only line in the subtitle, or the first or second line in a longer subtitle. This means that sometimes it's necessary to rephrase the subtitle in order to make it possible to break lines without breaking apart any linguistic units, e.g. splitting apart an adjective and the noun that it refers to. Other times, you may need to split a subtitle into two separate subtitles, if rephrasing doesn't help with fitting within 42 characters maximum per line.

Rules for what kind of linguistic unit can be broken vary by language, but the following general guidelines can inspire you to make better line-breaking choices in your subtitles.

Hint: When breaking a subtitle into two lines, don't leave a space at the end of the first line. It will be added to the number of characters and can bring the reading speed to over 21 characters/second, where the only edit necessary to bring it back down would be deleting that invisible space at the end of the first line.

How to break lines

Below, you will find strategies you can use when deciding where to break the subtile into two lines.

Keep the line length balanced

The possible maximum length of a subtitle depends on whether the reading speed is not over 21 characters per second. As long as the reading speed allows it, you can have up to two lines of up to 42 characters in your subtitle. If your maximum length is over 42 characters, you need to break the subtitle into two lines. Ideally, the lines in the two-line subtitle should be more or less balanced in length. So, you should break the line like this:

I adopted a dog, a cat,
three mice, and a goldfish.

...and you should not break the line like this:

I adopted a dog,
a cat, three mice, and a goldfish.

It may be difficult to achieve balance in length when trying not to break apart linguistic units. For example, these lines are broken in a way that preserves similar length, but breaks the linguistic unit of the adjective "Romance" modifying the noun "languages":

I can speak ten modern Romance
languages and read Latin pretty well.

In such cases, it is better to go with something less balanced, but preserve the linguistic unit:

I can speak ten modern Romance languages
and read Latin pretty well.

When using unbalanced lines to preserve linguistic units, make sure that one line is never less than 50% in length of the other. If a line is shorter than 50% of the other line, it can often distract the viewer more than reading a line where a linguistic unit is broken.

For example, the lines in this subtitle are not balanced for length (39/16 characters):

I learned more about James Tiptree, Jr.
on Wikipedia.

An easy way of making the lines more similar in length would be to put the words "Tiptree, Jr." in the second line:

I learned more about James
Tiptree, Jr. on Wikipedia.

However, this would break apart the proper name "James Tiptree, Jr.," which should be avoided. Proper names are an example of a linguistic unit that should not be divided. In this case, we could consider breaking apart another linguistic unit:

I learned more about
James Tiptree, Jr. on Wikipedia.

Here, we broke apart the verb and the complement, but as a result, achieved more balanced lines. Some linguistic units, like proper names, are more inseparable than others, so if you need to go against non-breaking rules, it is better to break apart another unit and keep them unseparated.

Clean line breaks through compressing/rephrasing text

Sometimes it may be necessary to rephrase the line in order to make it possible not to break apart linguistic units. For example, instead of going with this subtitle:

I learned more about Jane
Elliott on Wikipedia. may be able to rephrase it (depending on the context) to say:

I learned more about her on Wikipedia.
Then, I read the Wikipedia article.
I learned more about Jane Elliott.
I learned more about her.

This type of rephrasing can be referred to as "compressing" or reducing text. Depending on the context, it may be possible to omit some information, if previous subtitles or other sources (a slide, the viewer's general knowledge) are certain to fill the blanks anyway. This way, you can avoid breaking apart any linguistic units. You can learn more about compressing subtitles from this guide.

Clean line breaks through rephrasing

Of course, rephrasing is not only about making the subtitle so short that it can fit in one line (no longer than 42 characters). Sometimes, it's difficult or impossible to compress so much, but you can change the structure of the subtitle to make it easier to break cleanly. For example:

About Jane Elliott,
I learned more on Wikipedia.

This is not necessarily good English, but the target language that you are translating into may allow this sort of phrasing. If possible, try to rephrase the subtitle to make it break cleanly without the need to sever any linguistic units.

Splitting subtitles when lines can't be broken properly

Sometimes, there is just no way to break the line without splitting a proper name or a grammatical unit, like separating an article from the noun it refers to. In these cases, you can often split the subtitle itself into two separate subtitles, which will allow you to break the line longer than 42 characters. To split a subtitle, shorten the subtitle's duration using the sliders on the timeline, and then insert a new subtitle in the resulting gap by clicking the "plus" button on the subtitle below it.

Important: after you've added a new subtitle while translating, the number of subtitles in your translation will increase, so there will no longer be a 1:1 correspondence between the position of the original subtitle and the translation box. To ensure that you don't start translating subtitles in the wrong boxes and thus de-synchronize the translation, unlock the subtitle scrolling using the "padlock" button at the bottom of the interface, and scroll your translation so that the the position of first untranslated subtitle corresponds to its equivalent in the original subtitles, and then re-lock the scrolling by clicking the "padlock" button again.

Simple rules-of-thumb for line-breaking

It is impossible to provide a list of rules to use with all the languages in the world. Line-breaking rules depend largely on the target language's grammar (and morphology) - on what kind of units are "wholes" in a sentence. The list below contains some rules that can be used in English and several Western-European languages and can serve as an inspiration in searching for similar rules in your own language.

  • The articles (a, an, the) are never followed by a line break.
  • An adjective should stay together with what it is describing, but two or more adjectives can sometimes be separated with commas, and then it is possible (though not preferable) to break a line after one of the commas.
  • Clauses should stay together (never break lines after relative pronouns like which, that, who, etc.).
  • Prepositions are not followed by a line break if the break would separate them from the noun they refer to. Note that in English, a preposition in a concrete/physical meaning (e.g. "The book is in the drawer") always precedes a noun, and cannot be followed by a line break, but a preposition that is part of a phrasal verb (put up, figure out, take in) may sometimes not be followed by a noun ("I figured it out yesterday"), and so, it can be followed by a line break.
  • Proper names should stay together if at all possible (think of them as a single word with many parts).

For more line-breaking advice for English subtitles, see the English Style Guide.

Examples of correct line-breaks

The examples below show places in a sentence where lines can be broken. The ideal places to break are marked by the green slashes, while the orange slashes indicate places where it would be OK to break the line if breaking at the green slashes were not possible. Note that you don't normally break lines that do not exceed 42 characters; the examples below are simply used to show various grammatical contexts where a sentence can be broken, not to suggest that you should break subtitles into very short lines. Every language has different line-breaking rules, but the English examples below can inspire you to search for these rules in your language.

  • "This is a very long,/verbose piece/of prose/that no one knows/and no one/will remember."

Notes: Breaking lines at clause boundaries is usually a good strategy, and commas and conjunctions (like "and") often indicate clause boundaries. The first orange slash breaks up a clause but keeps together a noun+verb combination; "of" is a preposition and the line break should not follow it. The second orange line break separates a subject from the predicate. This is not ideal, but it's better than breaking the line after "will," since if possible, auxiliary verbs should not be separated from other verbs in grammatical constructions.

  • "Mary wants/to go/to the store,/but as far as I know,/all the stores/are closed/on Translation Day."

Notes: The green slashes are again placed at clause boundaries. The first orange slash is there to make sure that the word "to" is not separated from the infinitive, and the second is placed so as not to separate "to" from the noun phrase that the preposition refers to ("the store"). Remember that the orange slashes are various imperfect line-breaking options, and would never be used at the same time to create short lines; the point is, if you have to, you can break the clause after "wants" or after "to go." The third orange slash separates a subject from the predicate, but avoids separating the auxiliary verb ("are") from the participle ("closed"). In other words, line breaks should be placed in ways that don't split up complex grammatical constructions. The last orange slash splits off an adverbial, an expression that tells us something about a sentence or a verb, and thus, can often be put into the next line, as something "extra" that describes the sentence.

  • "I woke up,/jet-lagged,/at 4 in the morning,/in my new bed,/and right away I called/Annie Jayaraman,/to tell her/about my interview."

Notes: The example below contains some commas that are arguably redundant, but sometimes, you can "cheat" a little and add commas in places where part of the sentence can be considered a parenthesis, meaning a word or phrase that is interjected into a sentence to add some context or description, but could be left out without changing the "core" meaning of the sentence. For example, the word "jet-lagged" can be seen as an additional comment about the way the speaker awoke. You can easily break lines at the boundaries of such parentheses or interjections (usually set apart by commas), which is where the green slashes are placed. The orange slash after "called" indicates a line break that splits a verb from its complement or object, which should be used only if other breaks are not available. The second orange slash also separates a verb from its complement, but keeps intact the whole phrase that begins with the preposition "about."

How to end a subtitle

Generally, deciding what to put at the end of a subtitle is similar to selecting where to break a line. Below, you can learn about the most important differences between ending a subtitle and breaking a line.

Don't end the subtitle with a bit of the next sentence

If the subtitle contains the end of a sentence, try not to include the beginning of the next sentence, and instead, put that beginning into the following subtitle. Examples:

  • Two clauses from different sentences in one subtitle:


which is how I solved this.
And what I also noticed

is that the blue light went on.


which is how I solved this.

And what I also noticed
is that the blue light went on.
  • Small section of the next sentence in the second line:


Somehow, this worked really well
in her garage. When you work

on something big,
you need to accept failure.


Somehow, this worked really well
in her garage.

When you work on something big,
you need to accept failure.

Synchronize subtitle breaks with the content of the video

When transcribing a talk, part of your job is to choose where one subtitle ends and another begins, and just like in line breaking, the end of a subtitle should not split a linguistic unit.

Note that this type of "line-breaking" does not always follow the pauses in the talk. Make sure that the way you end the subtitle doesn't reveal something that the viewer is not meant to know about yet. For example, imagine the speaker says "I tried the experiment one more time, not sure if it would work, and it did!," and you could make it one subtitle. However, if the speaker throws up their hands in joy when saying "and it did!," you should end the subtitle after "work," not to reveal the "success" too soon, even though the line length would allow you to keep the whole sentence in one subtitle. If you want to learn more about how to synchronize the subtitles with the talk, see the guide to transcribing talks.