or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 05, 2005


I use the Webster's Dictionary of English Usage all the time: it's a gold mine of descriptivist analyses of the language, from "a/an" ("an historic occasion" is fine if that's your usual way of saying it) to "zoom" (it originated as an aeronautical term meaning "to fly straight upwards", but in popular usage it merely means "to move quickly", and that's acceptable). So naturally I was amazed to see a typographical oddity of the sort that any proofreader would instantly have objected to: the breaking of Havelock Ellis' name across two lines as

ock Ellis

(unless I have been cruelly misled and the pronunciation of his name is not the standard "have-lock" but the oddball "have-a-lock", which is not unheard of--it's the pronunciation of the name of a town in Nebraska).

Now, any proofreader can tell you that the most basic rule of line-break hyphenation is that you break at the syllables. (This is to say that spelling is less a factor in correct hyphenation than is pronunciation, leading to some disagreements when two people pronounce a word differently.) Many casual dictionary readers will not have noticed that the dictionary is happy to give you instruction in how to hyphenate: it lists words broken up into their component syllables, and you're free to use a hyphen at any of these breaking points as needed. Nowadays, of course, most spell-checkers come with a hyphenation dictionary, and so if you're permitting hyphenation (not needed in left-justified copy, essential in fully-justified margins), it will automatically know how to hyphenate each word. (If you're a fussbudget and disagree with the computer's choice, you can insert what's called a hard hyphen to override the computer.)

There are a couple of factors in the Dictionary's defence. Proper nouns, of course, are not listed in most dictionaries, and so are often a judgement call. (Is "Drusilla" hyphenated after the "-u-" or after the "-s-"? Should "Montevideo" be broken up as "Mon-te-vi-de-o" or "Mont-e-vid-e-o", or something in between?) And second, it's generally accepted that a word shouldn't be broken across two lines in such a way that its halves will form unintended words ("arse-nal" is a bad idea: "ar-senal" is the standard) or will due to vagaries in pronunciation mislead readers before they get to the next line ("know-ledge" is best avoided where possible). Perhaps the intention was to avoid "Have-lock". But it's better than "Havel-ock", which is unnatural and jarring. To me, anyway.


I suppose I ought to explain the terms "left-justified" and "fully-justified". "Justification" is merely a fancy typesetters' word for "lining up". What you're reading right now is left-justified: that is, the left-hand margin is lined up, but the right-hand margin is free to meander. Fully-justified text has both margins marching lockstep down the page; this is achieved by varying the width of the space between words in the line and by hyphenating the last word where necessary so as to avoid leaving too much or too little space between words. When using single justification, hyphenation is mostly unnecessary, because instead of breaking a word, the software will simply move the overly long word to the next line. But that isn't an option in full justification, so hyphens are the perfect solution.

There are other rules for hyphens, by the way. If at all possible, you aren't supposed to hyphenate a word that's continued on the next page, and you aren't allowed to have too many hyphens in a row on the rightmost margin (two is usually the limit, no more than three, after which you have to have a full word, regardless of the other consequences). Typesetting has a lot of rules; it's a little world unto itself.


I suppose I also ought to go on the record as saying that I despise "an historic occasion". It's an artifact of an older pronunciation, one that dropped the leading "h-". If you pronounce "herb" without the "h-", as I do, then of course you use "an" in front of it; but "an historic" or "an hotel" is just plain silly if you're pronouncing the "h-". The overriding rule still holds; "a" before a consonantal sound, "an" before a vowel sound. The spelling is irrelevant; the sound is what matters. (If you are a Cockney or a Newfoundlander and you say "an 'istoric occasion", that's just fine, of course.)


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