Navigating the Challenges of Effective Hyphenation
There is no set of straightforward rules to govern the use of hyphens in the English language, which means that a consistent system of hyphenation can be incredibly tricky to establish in a scholarly article. The difficulty is largely due to the fact that using a hyphen or not often depends upon the context of a word or phrase – namely, its specific role and its position in a sentence. Some disciplines have conventional patterns of usage, so the journal to which you plan to submit your academic or scientific writing may provide guidelines that indicate how and when hyphens should be used. Such details are extremely rare, however, and it is more common for author instructions simply to recommend that hyphenation be kept to a minimum. This is sound advice: although some hyphenated terms are traditional, hyphens are often used with considerable subjectivity to clarify an author’s meaning, and excessive hyphenation can defeat this purpose as well as cluttering a text and rendering it less legible.
Correct hyphenation patterns in English often vary from term to term, and, like many other aspects of the language, they are rather fluid, so they can change. There is a tendency, for example, for hyphenated compounds to become closed with frequent use over time: the change from ‘on line’ to ‘on-line’ to ‘online’ is a good example. As a general rule, however, hyphens are used more extensively in British than in American English, so a good dictionary that provides some advice on hyphenation in one or both forms of the language is essential for looking up individual words and compounds. Beyond focussing on accepted patterns and clarity of meaning when using hyphens, you should ensure that each hyphenated element remains consistent throughout your article and that similar words and phrases used in similar ways feature similar hyphenation, at least as much as this is possible and sensible. Do keep in mind, however, that some compound terms will need to be hyphenated while other similar ones may not.
Soft or floating hyphens present different challenges. Whereas the hard hyphens discussed above are permanently placed to join words or parts of words (or other elements such as numbers) in the formation of compounds, soft hyphens are used to divide words at line endings in a text to create a more balanced or attractive layout on the page. Soft hyphens are not necessary in scholarly writing and since they are generally added to a document through automatic hyphenation functions such as that in Microsoft Word, which tend to introduce inappropriate word divisions, they are best avoided. If you do wish or need to use automatic hyphenation, be sure to scan the line endings in your text for misleading divisions: ‘exact-ing’ and ‘re-appear’ are acceptable divisions for ‘exacting’ and ‘reappear,’ for instance, but ‘ex-acting’ and ‘reap-pear’ are not.
Whether automatic hyphenation is used or not, however, words appearing in the columns of tables will sometimes become divided in nonsensical and distracting ways if the columns are too narrow to accommodate them. The word ‘percentage,’ for instance, might be incorrectly divided over three lines to read ‘perc-enta-ge.’ In tables designed to report data in striking and immediately comprehensible visual forms, such errors are unattractive and unprofessional, so do watch for them if you are including tables in your article. If necessary, use abbreviations, make the columns in the tables concerned a little wider to allow the words enough space or restructure the tables with plenty of room for the headings to appear in a legible fashion.
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