Di-vision – Div-ision – Divi-sion – Divis-ion

by Jack Dixon (January 2009)

My topic is simply the question of word division– mostly in English, but with a diplomatic glance at French. My title has been devised, not to prognosticate dire social chaos in the future, but to suggest both the simplicity and the difficulty of word-division. To begin with, the term ‘word-division’ means different things to different linguists. Let me illustrate first what word-division is to a phonetician. Here’s W. Nelson Francis (Structure of American English, p. 112): “In listening to our native language we mentally divide up the continuous stream into individual words, partly on the basis of our intimate knowledge of the spoken language, and partly because of our familiarity with conventional writing and printing, in which words are set neatly apart. But if we listen to an unknown language, or with a truly objective ear to our own, we can hear very few clear indications of word division. In fact, we may not be able to distinguish with certainty any discrete units shorter than the breath-group. Thus, a phonetician who knows no English, upon hearing “Isn’t he coming today?” might feel that he had no other way to transcribe this than {1’lznti~k’Aml~to’id£!}”

Well, phoneticians fail to stimulate us. And, though the learning of language by infants is a miracle — GBS opined that it was an intellectual feat never again equalled by any adult in later life — we
must regretfully leave that intriguing field of exploration until another time. Or at the Greek Calends.

Word-division, such as I intend it, has to do with the splitting and carrying-over of a word from the end of one typographical line to the beginning of the next. If you have never agonized over it, you are wise. You leave it to your typist or your publisher’s printer. But what if you are the typist, or writer, or proofreader? What, further, if you are a conscientious typist or proofreader, and you don’t know where to divide a word. Where would you look? – in a dictionary? a grammar? a manual of usage? What kind of principle would you seek to establish?

In point of fact, there is only one principle governing the division of words; and it is the same principle, not only in French and English, but in other languages as well. That principle, in a word, is: syllabification. Having said that we can conclude quickly and head for the nearest bar.

Let’s Look at French first.

It is said that the French people cherish, revere and protect their language. It is, ’tis said, the chief of their great national heritages, and that even the humblest Frenchman writes and speaks French correctly – or at least much more correctly than does his American, Canadian, British or Australian counterpart. But we must remember that this so-called concern over the purity, correctness and clarity of their language harkens back to Richelieu’s obsessive ambition to bring everything under control, which could only be achieved by the imposition of authoritarian rules. The picture today is very different. Listen to Sanche de Gramont: “The most tenacious form of colonialism is linguistic: 8,000,000 Belgians, 10,000,000 Canadians, 6,000,000 Pacific islanders, and 55,000,000 Africans speak, or think they speak, the language of Descartes. The French feel a mixture of pride in the wide diffusion of their language, and amusement at the way other peoples massacre their idiom. They mercilessly ridicule the sing-song Belgian and Swiss accents, the Canadian neologisms (je vais magasiner), and the pidgin African French of the ‘moi partir toi rester’ variety. It is considered satisfying evidence of the vigour of national culture that 79,000,000 foreigners speak French, even though two-thirds of them are illiterate.”

The truth of the matter is that French, to a marked degree more than English, is a structured, grammatical language, whose behaviour is formalised by rules. Those rules are learned and applied, from the earliest days, at the mother’s breast. French word-division is determined by syllabification (or syllabication. I reject ‘syllabation’.) The French syllable, where possible, begins with a consonant and ends with a vowel-sound. No Frenchman would ever divide a word in the wrong place. It would be as unthinkable for him to write or print the second largest French-speaking city in the world MON-TREAL or MONTR-EAL, as it would be thinkable for an English-speaking printer to commit the barbarism of mangling the Scottish city: MON-TROSE or MONTR-OSE.

We come to English. And weep!

In English too, the principle of division is syllabification. One would have thought that so elementary a thing as how the words of one’s language are made and constructed would occupy and be discussed in the earliest pages of any reputable grammar. For there is a theoretical aspect to the question as well as a practical one. But you will search the grammarians high and low, inside and out, and nary a world about it will you find–whether you seek ‘word-division’ or ‘syllab(if)ication’ or ‘hyphenation’–and whether you are concerned with American English or the real – I mean, British English.

When we look at the situation prevailing in the British Isles, it is all the more surprising to find these lacunae, because most world-recognized authorities are not British at all. Jesperson, a Dane, says nothing. And of more recent date, the Dutch scholar Zandvoort is equally silent on the question.

He does actually have a paragraph on hyphenating, but he is dealing not with dividing words but with joining them. What he says is interesting though: “The lack of consistency [in the use of hyphens] is entirely in keeping with English practice, on which the late H. W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (a book to be used with care) [according to Zandvoort] expresses himself thus: ‘The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English education!’” We turn to Fowler, and re-read this denunciation of English education; but find a contrasting reticence where the other use of hyphens is concerned.

American grammarians and linguists are no more enlightening than the Europeans. After seeking the considered views of Shores, Mencken, Estrin, Marckwardt, Myers, Dillard, and others, one wonders whether there is any point in hoping for guidance from the experts on American usage. I am glad to be able to report that there is one work which redeems the good name of American scholarship. It is Wilson Follet’s Modern American Usage.

In a brief, rather philosophical than linguistic article, he bemoans the total lack of consistency in both American and English practices, and warns the reader of pitfalls to avoid. “It should seem as if an aspect of language so well panoplied in synonyms,” he writes, “ought to be as nearly systematized and settled as anything about living language can be, but the syllabication of English is a chronic annoyance to linguists, who seem to suffer equally under the British system… and the American system.”

Follett points out what we all know, namely that syllabification in American usage is based on pronunciation, and in British usage on etymology. He gives no rules, only a couple of general principles. “In general, a division is bad that ends a line on the false suggestion of some other word, often a monosyllable… For example, whereas ‘face-saving’ is a good division, ‘face-tious’, though correct, is deplorable.”

The problem is compounded by the reader’s exposure to both systems, through the importation of British books. “American readers have to recognize the variation in codes — the one that marks a difference between the noun ‘prog-ress’ and the verb ‘pro-gress’. . . and the one that does not; the code that divides ‘photog-raphy’ phonetically and one that sticks to etymology and ‘photo-graphy.’

Sometimes we find a mixture of the two systems in the same book; for example, a reprint of Francis Hackett’s Henry the Eighth shuttles between Websterian division [a word about that in a minute] of the sort that strikes the English as the most perverse possible (noth-ing, acknowl-edge), and such un-American breaks as ‘lament-able’, ‘frivol-ous’, ‘pro-cess’ — a clash made particularly graphic in the parallel words ‘signif-icant’ (American) and ‘magni-ficent’ (British). We leave the good, acerbic Wilson Follett and turn to Webster.

The general dissatisfaction is voiced accurately in the preface to the New World Dictionary: “To decide where one syllable ends and another begins. . . is a matter of such difficulty that linguistic science is still unable to provide a simple formula for syllable division in English. Neither the system of division used in this dictionary nor any other yet devised really squares with the observable facts of the English language… [We] continue to use, and unfortunately, to have represented to us as factual, a system which is neither logical in itself nor based on the ascertained characteristics of our language.”

The other Webster, the International, has a long article on the subject, and sets forth twelve rules. I will content myself with quoting a comment made in the introductory remarks: “3. The unsatisfactoriness of the practice of allowing pronunciation to determine place of division when no morpheme boundary is involved is best illustrated by words of the type of apparatus and cyclic, which have pronunciation variants that call for inconsistent divisions. . . An alternative that is less disturbing, that has good precedent in other parts of the English-speaking world. . . is the divorcing of such division from pronunciation as much possible. All dictionaries and all careful dividers use such divisions as offi-cial, posi-tion, and divi-sion, in which a short vowel stands at the end of a line or syllable.”

Lasky (in Proofreading and Copy-Preparation) decrees that there are two authoritative American dictionaries “and that these, to a great extent, do not agree with each other on what constitutes correct division of words into syllables.” We also note here that the University of Chicago Manual of Style sets out a number of rules, and indicates the unbreakable rules by an asterisk. Rule No. 1 is: “Divide according to pronunciation (American system), not according to derivation (English).” That rule is asterisked! Webster adds, in the next paragraph of the article just quoted, that “British publishers seem not to attach much importance to consistency of division, and most British dictionaries do not show divisions in entry word.”[1]  (I may add that all bold-face entry words in Webster are syllabized.)

What do the British have to say about their bad practices?

Horace Hart, one of the leading authorities and a household word in printing and publishing houses, a former (1883-1915) Printer to the Oxford University Press, writes: “Divide according to etymology, where this is obvious: atmo-sphere, bio-graphy, tele-phone, trans-port. Where etymological composition is not obvious divide according to pronunciation; and in general break between two (or more) consonants coming together.”

Hart goes on to give other rules and many examples. However, he is at one with Follett in his insistence on avoiding divisions which might confuse or alter the meaning. Here are some of the examples he gives of faulty division. Avoid making legends into leg-ends; readjust into read-just; reappear into reap-pear; exacting into ex-acting (director, e.g.). If the basic principle is clear, if different, in British and in American practice, everything else thereafter is far from clear or horribly complicated.

What is the Canadian practice? In the past, and obedient to the law of cultural dominance, Canadian practice followed the British in nearly everything. Today, in obedience to the same law, Canadian English is tending to follow American practice, increasingly, especially in sentence structure, orthography, and pronunciation — with the reservations that imperialists, monarchists and other traditionalists hue to the British practice, and that there is a growing national sentiment which is actively cultivating and seeking distinctive Canadian aberrations.

Now it is precisely in the neglected area of word-division that Canadian writers, printers and others are demonstrating an attitude, and hence a practice, which can only be called original. It is also characterized by simplicity, and a certain lofty insouciant detachment. They use the computer. When the automatic typesetter or photocomposer comes to the last space of the line, it zaps in a hyphen and carries over the remainder of the word.

Let’s be serious for a minute –if one can get serious about computers: “So far [I have] assumed that a decision will be taken by the typist or typesetter each time a word needs to be broken. When computers are used for typesetting, such decisions are made by the computer according to the rules which have been programmed into it. “The two main approaches to word division in computerised typesetting are represented by the logic system and the dictionary system. The logic system relies on the computer breaking words in accordance with a programmed set of rules. Because there are many exceptions to these rules, and because the element of human judgment is lacking, errors are inevitable. In the dictionary system, word lists indicating syllables and correct [?] divisions in coded form are fed into the computer to be stored in its ‘memory’ until required (i.e. until a word on the list requires to be broken). This system is only as effective as the number of words which can be coded and stored in the computer memory. Most systems now in use combine features of both the logic and the dictionary systems. [So many words in ‘memory’: if word not there, ‘logic’.] Some computer systems incorporate a monitoring device to provide a visual record of the setting as it progresses and to give advance warning when a decision is required for breaking a word at the end of a line. In these systems, word-division remains a matter of judgment for the operator of the machine and not an automatic function of the machine itself.” (Manuel of Style. Government of Australia Publications. Did I say ‘Canadian practice?)

Canadian computerised typesetting, I regret to have to report, is far from being as professional as the system described. One actually does find a mathematical and mechanical division which is literally designed to zap in a hyphen in the last space of the typographical line, irrespective of what is to be carried over. Who has not seen a lonely looking apostrophe or other punctuation mark, or a single letter (which would have nicely filled the end of the preceding line) carried over?

But it is not all shrug and sneer! Among the word divisions we find some that can only be described as creative and genial! If you have to split contentious words be careful you do it in a place that does not cause offence or vulgarity. Thus: with hither do not hit-her; or heather do not heat-her with scholarship avoid scholars-hip; bishopric (what is a ‘bisho’?). What, for that matter, is a ‘trate’, as in demons-trate? and a ‘orker’, as in cow-orker?

Can anyone explain how you ‘draise’ ‘fun’ – as in ‘fun-draising’? Do we need an aristocratic urologist to explain a ‘pee-rage’?

Bear in mind the only principle that matters and you will avoid hurting people’s feelings. For how else could you make ‘therapist’ become ‘the-rapist’!

Finally: sports journalists, in keeping with their questionable mania for abbreviation, combination and reduction, have belittled a ‘titleholder’ to a ‘titlist’, and thereby, if wrongly cleaved, ensured

the prize goes to the beauty contestant who stands way out in front!

But stay! What see I here? I am perchance being a bit hasty! I have been laying it on to penny-pinching publishers and cheap computers. Is there not another possibility? Do you recall the simple, unerring principle governing the division of French words? Have you not noticed it? Are those faulty and damaging divisions of English words divided, not by computer whimsy, but precisely according to the French principle? Can it be. . .? Supposing it is not an accident attributable to the capitalist principle, but a plot attributable to political un-principle! Has the trade of computer programmers been infiltrated by Quebec operators bent on sabotaging the English language and on getting a linguistic revenge? This is a case for CSIS or the CIA! C’est à rendre fou! Franglais? This is going too far!

If these three, or four, systems and practices are obviously unsatisfactory, we reach the momentous conclusion that the best solution is perhaps a large measure of common sense plus a watchful eye to avoid misleading the reader — if only common sense were not so far from being common. If we may wonder, with Fowler, “whether so simple a matter is worth an intelligent person’s attention,” I prefer, rather than attempt to address that doubt, to conclude by quoting the OUP of N.Y. stylebook

(which is quoted by Perrin’s Writers Guide – which is quoted by Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words), which says: “If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.” I have had that scare in mind, as it must have been plain, ever since I began this report. And I will conclude in the same vein by misquoting an Elizabethan nursery-rhyme:

Multiplication is vexation

Subtraction is as bad!

The rule of three doth puzzle me,

Division drives me mad.

[1] The late Dr. John Sykes, former general editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries, told me several years ago that the OUP were preparing a dictionary in which the main entries will be syllabized.


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