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What are the rules for splitting words at the end of a line?

In printed texts, especially those with narrow columns, it's necessary from time to time to divide the last word in the line, and put some of it on the line below. The computer's automatic word-breaking system can execute this, but sometimes the output is 'wrong': tran + scend or trans + cend, des + pite or de + spite, the + rapist or ther + apist and go on and on. Yet dictionaries are far from unanimous about word-breaking.

That being said, I wonder if there are any 'rules' or guidelines that can be helpful in word-breaking actions.

  • @Carlo_R- Read this- melbpc.org.au/pcupdate/9100/9112article4.htm
    – Jim
    Oct 7, 2012 at 20:14
  • I was always taught that dictionary listings indicated syllable breaks, and that those breaking points were "safe" places for hyphenation. Not all online dictionaries don't list words that way, but some do.
    – J.R.
    Oct 7, 2012 at 21:03
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    @J.R. If you read Peter's answer to the question to which StoneyB has related the mine, you see this rule "Break words at morpheme boundaries". I think Peter is right, so we should hyphenate this way: the-rapist, not ther-apist. Your link, however, is helpful only to basic English, not to academic pourpose that ELU has.
    – user19148
    Oct 7, 2012 at 21:21
  • There sure are, as Luke and others pointed out below. Unfortunately, not everything is obvious or straightforward. In a sense, it's a pity that we so frequently use a keyboard to write our texts, because it was easier to avoid word division when writing by hand was common practice.
    – Paola
    Oct 7, 2012 at 23:57
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    @Carlo: My link was only meant to show an example of an online dictionary providing the same info readily found in almost any print dictionary. As for where to hyphenate, read Rule #5 here or Rule #1 here or the first bullet here. As is mentioned here: Check a dictionary if you are unsure of the syllable breaks. It's ther•a•pist.
    – J.R.
    Oct 8, 2012 at 0:21

1 Answer 1


Here are the rules:

  1. Division can only occur between syllables
  2. Word must have at least two pronounced syllables
  3. At least two letters and hyphen must appear on first line
  4. At least three letters must appear on second line

One of the reasons for the complexity of the rules of word-breaking is that different 'dialects' of English tend to differ on the rule: American English tends to work on sound, while British English tends to look to the origins of the word and then to sound. There are also a large number of exceptions, which further complicates matters.

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    What about 'always split a word liking digging as dig-ging (between the doubled consonants).'? Which is to say, I think there are more "rules" than you've enumerated here.
    – Jim
    Oct 7, 2012 at 20:16
  • The syllables are always split between doubled consonants. Thus, the division of the word will occur between the doubled consonants. Many rules about how to split the syllables are condensed into the first one rule I stated.
    – Luke_0
    Oct 7, 2012 at 20:32
  • I see. Many being the operative word. phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/syllabif.htm and not all of them universally agreed upon.
    – Jim
    Oct 7, 2012 at 20:51
  • @Jim I think that was pointed out in Luke's answer: There are also a large number of exceptions, which further complicates matters.
    – Souta
    Oct 7, 2012 at 21:29