Thirty years ago, copyeditors by and large didn’t concern themselves with how words were broken at the end of lines in their publications. Copyediting was primarily done during the manuscript phase, and such aesthetic concerns were the purview of the graphic designers doing the layout and the proofreaders doing the final cleanup.
But the scope of copyediting has grown, both by choice and from necessity borne of shrinking editorial staffs, so that very little of the editorial process now falls outside the copyeditor’s expertise. Including how best to break a word at the end of a line of text.
Most every publication has its own guidelines for word breaks, and by all means follow your house style guide if this information is all laid out there. But if you’re working without a style guide or you’re trying to build your own, what follows can give you a better grasp of the basic concepts.
Even if you have a house style guide handy — and besides, you’ve memorized The Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover — you might still find some tips here that you hadn’t considered before.
When to Break Words
Although there is some elbow room here, in general, end-of-line word breaks should only be implemented in fully justified text. Words in left-aligned text — also called “ragged right” — should only be broken when not doing so would result in extremely uneven line lengths.
Whether you’re working with left-aligned or fully justified text, there is one immutable rule of end-of-line breaks: Do not break one-syllable words. Doing so is aesthetically ugly and, more importantly, causes miscues in pronunciation. A slightly less unbreakable rule of word breaks: Do not break initialisms or all-caps acronyms, for reasons of both aesthetics and pronunciation.
Where to Break Words
Professional publications more or less agree on a couple general guidelines about end-of-line breaks. Your publication may have different ideas, and as with most things editorial, it ultimately comes down to an artistic choice:
- Unless it’s absolutely necessary, do not introduce a new hyphen into a word that already has a hyphen. Put another way, if a word has a hyphen in it, as with hurdy-gurdy or eye-popping, break it right after the hyphen that is already there.
- When possible, break a compound word between its constituent parts. Prefer butter-/fly to but-/terfly.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, offers more detailed guidelines for word division in sections 7.36–7.47, but they serve as a supplement to the guidance found in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Which brings us to the an important thing to know about dictionaries:
The dots that appear in a dictionary’s head words do not indicate syllables but appropriate places to break a word at the end of a line.
Although these breaks follow pretty closely to syllable division (rather than to, say, etymological divisions), breaking at syllables takes a back seat to pronunciation, readability, and aesthetics.
The word atheism is a good example. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, you’ll find the head word divided like this: athe•ism. That means you should really only break this word as athe-/ism. If you look at the pronunciation, though, you’ll find all four syllables laid out: ā-thē-i-zəm.
We don’t find dots separating all four syllables because M-W’s guidelines for word breaks indicate that at least two letters must appear in each word part when it’s broken. M-W recommends, for example, that the word idea not be broken at the end of a line because it would mean either an isolated i (i-/dea) or an isolated a (ide-/a). CMoS takes it a bit further, preferring (in 7.37) that at least three letters appear after a break in a word.
Although neither CMoS nor M-W state it this way, I have found one guideline leads me to a better word break every time: A reader should intuitively understand how to pronounce the first part of a broken word without knowing the rest of the word. This guideline coincides quite well with hyphenation recommendations for both CMoS and M-W. (Hence, e.g., prov-/erb instead of pro-/verb.) But again, this is not always possible, especially in words borrowed from other languages.
Keeping this guideline in mind can help when you’re faced with homonyms with different pronunciations — such as the verbs pre-/sent and pro-/ject and the nouns pres-/ent and proj-/ect — subtleties a computer program’s automatic hyphenation might not recognize. It can also lead you to avoid creating inadvertent compounds with breaks like rein-/force and rear-/range as well as pronunciation pitfalls like coin-/cide and rein-/terred.
Will readers actually be confused if a word isn’t broken in the optimal place? Of course not. They’re smarter than that. But any time a reader has to reevaluate the pronunciation of the first part of a broken word after seeing the second part creates a bump in an otherwise smooth reading. If you, the copyeditor, could help your readers avoid these little cognitive hiccups with a simple edit, why wouldn’t you?