Looking for a break: tips for dividing a word at the end of a line

Successful proofreaders are always looking to catch a break—a word break, that is. A break is where a hyphen divides a word at the end of a line.

Writers and editors rarely deal with breaks; most word processing programs bump a word to the next line if there isn’t space. And, even when breaks do appear in a manuscript, they differ from those in the proofs. That’s where proofreaders come in. As they comb through every letter and punctuation mark, proofreaders pay special attention to word breaks.

If you want to be a good proofreader, you need to distinguish good breaks from bad. Follow these tips for dividing a word at the end of a line.

Do

  1. Divide words between syllables (syl·la·bles). To find a break, consult a dictionary that shows syllabification (syl·lab·i·fi·ca·tion). Dictionaries can differ in how they syllabify words; stick to the same dictionary in order to maintain consistency.
  2. Divide words according to pronunciation, not derivation (ar·tis·tic, not art·is·tic).
  3. Divide words after a vowel (radi·cal, not rad·ical), unless the break affects pronunciation      (pal·ace, not pa·lace). When a vowel forms a syllable in the middle of a word, keep it on the first line (situa·tion, not situ·ation). Treat diphthongs as single vowels (read·able, not re·adable). If the final syllable is a liquid l, don’t carry it over.
  4. Divide gerunds and present participles before the ing (skat·ing). When there is a double consonant before the ing, make the division between the consonants (wrap·ping). When a word ends in ling and the l is preceded by a consonant, carry over the consonant (daw·dling).
  5. Keep at least two letters before the break (iden·tify, not dentify, afraid, notfraid) and carry over at least three letters after the break (Cana·dian, not Canadi·an, lover, not lov·er).
  6. Divide a hyphenated compound at the existing hyphen (cross·reference, not crossrefer·ence).
  7. Divide a closed compound at the natural break (after·thought, not af·terthought).
  8. Divide between a root word and a prefix or suffix (dis·comfort, not discom·fort).
  9. Watch for words with multiple meanings (pro·gress versus prog·ress).
  10. Divide between double consonants (rob·bery).

Don’t

  1. Divide words in headings.
  2. Divide single-syllable words (shopped, not shop·ped).
  3. Divide the last word in a paragraph or at the end of a page.
  4. Create confusing breaks that make one word look like another (thera·pist, not the·rapist).
  5. Divide proper nouns. If you have no choice, the Chicago Manual of style has guidelines for breaking proper nouns.
  6. End more than two lines with hyphens. This creates hyphen ladders, which are cluttered and distracting to the reader.
  7. Separate a number or letter used in a run-in list from the item that follows it. Instead, carry over the number or letter to the next line.
  8. Break large numerals. If you must divide a numeral, do so after a comma and never after a single digit (1,200,- / 000, not 1,-/200,000).
  9. Separate a numeral from a symbol or abbreviation (500 m, 2 lbs). Instead, carry over the numeral to the next line.
  10. Hyphenate a URL or email address. If a URL already contains a hyphen, carry over the hyphen to to the next line. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests breaking a URL “after a colon or a double slash; before or after an equals sign or an ampersand; or before a single slash, a period, or any other punctuation or symbol.”

 Additional considerations

  • Don’t apply word breaks at the manuscript stage. If your word processor has a hyphenation function, turn it off.
  • If you are editing a manuscript that does show breaks, mark all end-of-line hyphens with a “close up and delete” symbol.
  • Always use the same dictionary for the same manuscript or publication.
  • Check the style manual or organizational style guide given to you.
  • Keep breaks to a minimum—even a perfect break is like a road sign interrupting a nice view.

Follow these guidelines to prevent breaks from causing confusion or interfering with a reader’s enjoyment. With practice, you’ll have no trouble catching a break—good or bad.

Read more on The handy hyphen: how and when to use this common symbol.

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