(British) English word division explained
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.
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:
Merriam Webster is much more syllable-oriented and gives the following:
Don’t rely on MS Word for British English
With the proofing language set to UK, MS Word splits the word ‘division’ as follows:
despite the fact that that follows to the Merriam Webster method.
So what are the rules?
I’m looking at British English here.
✔ 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 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
✔ 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
- Don’t divide a word at the very end of a page.
- Do divide words at double letters, except if the double letter is part of the root of the word:
✔ suf-fix ✘ suff-ix
✔ 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