Are there any rules or recommendations on word wrapping in English text? For example, consider the following sentence wrapped on two lines:

The tragedy of the commons is an
economics theory by Garrett Hardin.

I believe that the article an cannot be left on the first line. So the following wrapping seems better:

The tragedy of the commons is
an economics theory by Garrett Hardin.

What about the short word is? Should I leave it or is it better to move it to the second line as well? (Note, that I am not talking about the line lengths here!)

I believe this is more typographical question rather than linguistic one. Nevertheless, are there any recommendations/rules on this topic?

  • 3
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about rules of typography, not English. – Robusto Jul 30 '14 at 11:22
  • 5
    Admittedly the rules of English typography can be special. It certainly is a no-no to strand prepositions and one-letter words in Russian, say, but it's a-okay in English. At any rate, there are lots of other things to consider and tradeoffs to make. Like, sometimes there's no way to prevent a river other than by stranding a short word — especially in a language like English that is all short words. – RegDwigнt Jul 30 '14 at 11:30
  • 1
    Worse, wrapping can and sometimes does distort semantics, with either disastrous or hilarious results cf. newspaper headings. – Kris Jul 30 '14 at 12:13
  • 1
    However, the algorithm usually followed today is concerned more about technicalities: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_wrap – Kris Jul 30 '14 at 12:16

In my experience, publishers don't bother to fiddle with word wrap issues except in connection with coverlines and other display type (headlines, subheads, table titles, and sometimes captions).

Part of the reason for their restraint on this score is that they've elected to dedicate their limited editorial resources to more-pressing problems (such as narrative coherence and typographical accuracy) instead. But a further issue is that artificially arranging to keep ideas together on a line can have a detrimental effect on the jaggedness of a paragraph's right margin (if the text is set ragged right) or on the looseness of particular lines (if the text is set right-justified).

In other words, keeping ideas together on a line isn't necessarily a cost-free process.

In display type, however, the benefits of keeping blocks of text together to avoid ending lines with weak words such as "a," "the," or "and," and to avoid inviting misinterpretations of the type Kris mentions in a comment above increase, while the disadvantages tend to diminish—especially since coverlines (in particular) are subject to painstaking alteration to fit available space more effectively.

In the case of a report that you type, format, and publish yourself, of course, you are free to be as meticulous as you wish within the limits of the time available. But I'm not aware of any widely enforced rules in major style guides governing the question of how to handle line turnovers.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I remember a Wall Street Journal headline to the effect of (two lines) "Motorists despise costly mandates / like costly fuel additives". It took me quite awhile to figure out why motorists would like costly fuel additives. – supercat Oct 1 '14 at 22:39

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.