Put the Brakes on Bad Breaks!

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2017-07-13

Do you know the appropriate place to break a word like "friendship" or "disenfranchised"?

Word breaks aren't something many people think about anymore, now that we have word processing programs and software that can handle those details for us. But before that technology was available to us, words had to be broken manually from one line to the next (think typesetting, or typing on typewriters). At TEC, I often have to have some degree of control over where word breaks occur when I am laying out articles or documents, and some authors are very particular about where word breaks occur and how they are handled. At these times, it’s helpful to know what the guidelines are for breaking words so that everyone is happy with the end result.

Generally, when you’re faced with breaking a word, the main rule is to avoid doing so if you can (I’ll share some tips for that in a minute). But, if you must, there are some rules you should follow.

The rules for breaking words can be very confusing, even contradictory at times. Some dictionaries still show marks the spots in words where breaks should occur if they must, but you may find that different dictionaries have varying opinions on where those breaks should be.

Some dictionaries show breaks between each syllable in a word (as in the photo to the left), but if you try to use those breaks to snap a word in two, it can become quite confusing for the reader. For example, the word “imperfect” has three syllables: im-per-fect. But, if you used those guidelines to break the word, you could end up with imper-fect, which would cause confusion. The better decision would be to have it appear as im-perfect, and I’ll explain why.

The main guideline to follow is to break words along “morpheme” boundaries. A morpheme is a small unit of language that cannot be divided down any further. An example of this in action is “incoming,” which is made up of three smaller units: in, come, and -ing.

There are two types of morphemes: free and bound. Free morphemes can stand alone to function independently as words, as “come” does in the example above. Bound morphemes cannot stand alone as a word and only appear as parts of words, such as “-ing” in the same example.

As I explained above, an oft-quoted rule for breaking words is to break them at syllable points, which often do line up with morphemes—but not always! That’s why it’s helpful to stick to the morpheme rule and not rely on syllables. Otherwise, you could end up with in-terstitial instead of the more comprehensible inter-stitial.

But what about when you DO need to have some control over word breaks in your word processing programs? I have a few ways to do this, the simplest of which is just turning off hyphenation altogether. In Word, you can do this by:

  1. Clicking the HOME tab.
  2. Choose Paragraph from the menu so that the options pop-up appears.
  3. Click the Line and Page Breaks tab on the pop-up.
  4. Under Formatting Exceptions, select Don’t Hyphenate.


Here at TEC, we work with French documents fairly often, and these rules especially come in handy at these times. When I am laying out a French document using InDesign, I must always keep in mind that the French rules for word breaks are different from English guidelines. For this reason, we decided it was easier and more beneficial for the authors if we just turned hyphenation off altogether. If you use InDesign, the steps to turn off hyphenation are:


  1. Click open your Paragraph palette/panel.
  2. Select the drop down menu from the top right corner of the panel box.
  3. Navigate down to “Hyphenation” and select this option.
  4. Deselect the check box named “Hyphenation.”


If you don’t want to turn off hyphenation altogether, but just want more control over the process in Word, there’s a way to do that too:

  1. Click over to the PAGE LAYOUT tab.
  2. On the Page Setup part of the menu, you’ll see a drop down menu for Hyphenation.
  3. The drop-down menu also has an option for turning off Automatic Hyphenation, but it also has a Hyphenation Options selection as well. If you click it, you’ll get a pop-up that allows you to make more rules for how hyphenation occurs. If you select Manual Hyphenation (and had no hyphenation prior to that point), Word will (starting at wherever your cursor is placed) take you through each instance where it automatically avoided a hyphenation and will allow to you custom set where you want each word to break.