Splitting words at the ends of lines

(British) English word division explained

 

Illustration of division of the word division

 

Different languages have different rules for where to divide words at the ends of lines. There are even different rules between British and US English.

This blog post looks at the tricky question of when and how to split words in British English. First we look at some rules of thumb, and then I provide some Dos and Don’ts.

 

First rule of thumb: avoid splitting words if possible

When I translate documents into English that are going to be published, I advise the client’s DTP people to try and avoid splitting words at the ends of lines completely.

That makes life much easier for everyone – and saves the client money on proofreading!

Now, that’s OK if your document has fairly wide columns or none at all. But if your document is laid out in a newspaper-style format, you might not be able to avoid splitting words.

 

How to check where to put the hyphen

Always check the word you need to split on an authoritative website.

You used to be able to check British English word divisions at www.oxforddictionaries.com, but sadly it seems they have discontinued this important function. I haven’t yet found a replacement site to offer you for British English. I’m working on it!

For US English, go to www.merriam-webster.com

Simply type in your word in the search box, and you’ll see the word divisions just below.

As an example of how different British and US English are, take the word ‘division’. Oxford Dictionaries tells me to split it as follows:

     div-ision

Merriam Webster is much more syllable-oriented and gives the following:

     di-vi-sion

 

Don’t rely on MS Word for British English

With the proofing language set to UK, MS Word splits the word ‘division’ as follows:

     divi-sion

despite the fact that that follows to the Merriam Webster method.

 

So what are the rules?

I’m looking at British English here.

The main rules of thumb are to divide words on the basis of syllables, prefixes or suffixes, and pronunciation.

In other words: Split at the end of a syllable, prefix or suffix:

✔ pre-fixes                                    ✘ pref-ixes
✔ pronounc-ing                              ✘ pronoun-cing

The first part of the split word still needs to be recognisable to the reader and shouldn’t look like a completely different word:

✔ co-incidence                              ✘ coin-cidence
✔ pronounc-ing                              ✘ pronoun-cing

The split part of the word on the next line should be easy to pronounce:

✔ pro-nounced                               ✘ pronoun-ced

 

Dos and Don’ts of dividing words in British English

Don’t:

  • Don’t divide names
  • Don’t divide words pronounced as one syllable:

✔ thought                                 ✘ tho-ught

  • Don’t divide words in a way that alters the pronunciation:

✔ ready                                    ✘ read-y

  • Don’t divide words between two consonants that form one sound (th, ch, sh, ea etc.):

✔ reach-ing                              ✘ reac-hing

  • Don’t leave only one letter at the end of a line:

✔ aground                                ✘ a-ground

  • Don’t leave only two letters at the start of a line (except if the two letters form a recognisable suffix):

✔ Briton                                   ✘ Brit-on

             but

✔ bright-er                               ✘ brigh-ter

  • Don’t divide words with fewer than six letters (with a few exceptions – of course, this is English we’re discussing!):

✔ money                                  ✘ mon-ey

✔ again                                    ✘ a-gain

             but

✔ out-do

  • Don’t divide a word at the very end of a page.

 

Do:

  • Do divide words at double letters, except if the double letter is part of the root of the word:

✔ suf-fix                                    ✘ suff-ix

             but

✔ pass-able                              ✘ pas-sable

In the first example, the consonant ‘f’ has been doubled to ensure the first syllable is pronounced with a short vowel (here: ‘u’ not ‘oo’), whereas in the second example, the root of the word has a double consonant to begin with: ‘pass’.

  • Do divide compound words into two separate words

✔ news-paper                            ✘ newspa-per

  • Do avoid more than one hyphen in a compound word or phase if possible:

✔ well-developed                        ✘ well-devel-oped

 

 

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