How is the word "interferometer" correctly split at the end of a line in British English, i.e. what is the correct syllabification?

I found two contradicting syllabifications:

Is there any authority for British English (possibly accessible online)?

Background: I am writing a scientific article using the typesetting programme LATEX with Babel for British English, which automatically carries out the word splitting at the end of lines. The word "interferometer" is split as

We are using an interfer-

ometer for our measurements.

which apparently follows Merriam-Webster (see above). However the referee of the article is the opinion that the word is "strangely cut".

  • The referee is right: "interfero-meter" it is. Generally when the prefix is truncated (interfer/ence/ + o + meter), the o modifies the prefix, not the suffix. In cases where the prefix is the full word, the o is not part of the prefix but instead can be 'prepended' to the suffix.
    – Kris
    Oct 25 '13 at 13:33
  • Note also that a specific style guide may be applicable in your case.
    – Kris
    Oct 25 '13 at 13:40
  • 2
    This is a tricky word; interfero-meter is wrong. It violates the rule "never break a word after a short vowel in an accented syllable; interferom-eter is wrong: it violates the rule "always break a word at a morphene boundary. As far as I can tell, interfer-ometer violates no rules, and should be the preferred hyphenation. Oct 25 '13 at 14:49
  • @Kris: Where does that "rule" come from? It certainly doesn't overrule the don't break after a short vowel in an accented syllable rule in any hyphenation lists I've seen. For example, param-eter and para-metric are hyphenated the way they are because of their differing pronunciations. Oct 25 '13 at 18:54
  • Thank you for the replies and comments so far. I did some more investigation myself, unfortunately only adding further confusion. Apparently most -meters are hyphenated separating the m from the e consistently in the Merriam-Webster & American Heritage: e.g. ba·rom·e·ter (bə-rä-mə-tər), psy·chrom·e·ter (sī-krä-mə-tər), ta·chom·e·ter (ta-kä-mə-tər), ther·mom·e·ter (thə-mä-mə-tər). This actually makes me wonder what an "eter" is. Exceptions are volt·me·ter, hec·to·me·ter, ki·lo·me·ter (why not ki·lom·e·ter??).
    – KoRoWa
    Oct 27 '13 at 22:20

This is a tricky word. Here are some arguments for and against various hyphenations.

interfero-meter is wrong; It violates the rule "never break a word after a short vowel in an accented syllable".
interferom-eter is wrong; it violates the rule "always break a word at a morphene boundary".
interfe-rometer is wrong; it breaks up the "er", which constitute a phoneme in American English rhotic accents. It also breaks the above rule about morpheme boundaries.
interfer-ometer is wrong; it violates the maximal onset principle: "always break a srting of consonants at the leftmost possible spot that allow the following syllable to start with a consonant cluster that could start a word in English" (subject to being consistent with the first rule above.

The maximum onset principle is illustrated by the word mon-strous. You can start a word with "str" but not "nstr",

If you think this is important, you can appeal to the editor and cite Merriam-Webster (or American Heritage), and probably get the referee overruled.

I would guess that the British hyphenation is in-ter-fe-rom-e-ter. This certainly is the hyphenation if the morpheme boundary rule doesn't overrule some other rules.

  • 1
    Given that there appears to be no good single right answer, and that the work is not designed to be read aloud, I would tend to agree with the referee, and break on the morpheme boundary, despite rule 1 above. An additional factor (which could go either way) is that many readers of a paper will not be native English speakers, personally I would rather confuse their pronunciation than their etymology. I certainly wouldn't see this as an issue to fight the referee over!
    – Chris H
    Oct 25 '13 at 15:15
  • 1
    Perhaps the best place is inter-ferometer but I'm not sure about your last "rule": there isn't much in the way of "a string of consonants".
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 25 '13 at 16:08
  • 1
    @Andrew: The maximum onset principle, if you have just one consonant in between vowels, says that the consonant goes with the following syllable. I would say this is the least important of the rules, and thus interfer-ometer is the best hyphenation. Interfero-meter has the major disadvantage of suggesting the pronunciation interfere-owe-meter, and interfe-rometer has the major disadvantage of breaking up the morpheme interfere. Oct 25 '13 at 17:01
  • 1
    @PeterShor, I agree completely, my comment was only in reference to cases where there isn't a clear convention. On balance you've convinced me, though I wouldn't pronounce interfer as interfere, more to rhyme with suffer, so it is at odds with my (British) pronunciation as interfere-ometer.
    – Chris H
    Oct 26 '13 at 9:19
  • 1
    The maximum onset principle is overruled so often by morphemic considerations that I would safely say it can be ignored in a case as problematic as ‘interferometer’. In·ter·fer·ome·ter seems least infelicitous to me, too. Or perhaps even better: in·ter·ferome·ter. That at least violates absolutely no rules and maintains morphological consistency entirely. Nov 17 '13 at 19:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.