Use hyphens wisely: Discretion is advised

Having just educated two of my designer friends—both award-winning veterans of the book industry—about the discretionary/optional hyphen, I realized that maybe not everyone knows about it after all. Convincing designers to embrace the discretionary hyphen can mean saving a lot of proofing time (or, at the very least, eliminating a proofing worry), so I’ve found myself proselytizing, and I might as well do that here, too.

What they are

You’re familiar with the good ol’-fashioned regular hyphen (like the one in “ol’-fashioned”), also known as the hard hyphen. If a line breaks after a hard hyphen, it’s no big deal. In contrast, you wouldn’t want a line break after the hyphen in a phone number, say, or a numeral-unit adjective (e.g., 4-ton jack), and in those situations you’d want to use a nonbreaking hyphen.

But let’s say you’re reading a proof where a word has broken where you don’t want it to break—e.g., mi•crowave instead of micro•wave. What happens when you mark up the proof asking the designer to rebreak the word?

Well, the way many designers have been told to solve the problem is simply to add a (hard) hyphen where they want the break to happen. The approach seems to resolve the issue, but it’s not an elegant fix. What they should be using is a discretionary hyphen (Ctrl/Command + Shift + – in InDesign), which appears if the word breaks at the end of the line but remains invisible when it doesn’t.

Let’s say the designer has added a hard hyphen to “microwave” to make it break as


If you made text changes that pushed “micro” to the following line, for example, you’d end up with “micro-wave” on one line, and the proofreader would have to ask for that hyphen to be deleted.

Using a discretionary hyphen would mean that “microwave” would continue to break as


if it flowed over two lines but appear as “microwave” otherwise.

(Apparently, if you add a discretionary hyphen before a word, InDesign prevents that word from being broken at all—handy for some proper nouns. More information about hyphens in InDesign can be found here.)

Why they help

Beyond the fact that the proofreader no longer has to worry about designer-introduced hard hyphens, discretionary hyphens are especially helpful for texts that are destined for more than one format or medium. Many publishers create their ebooks from their InDesign files, and because EPUB text can reflow, hard hyphens introduced to break a word in a desirable place for the print edition are bound to show up where they aren’t needed in the ebook. Either a proofreader has to go through the ebook text and remove them, or the publisher leaves them in and effectively sacrifices some of its editorial standards in its ebooks. Similarly, reprints (e.g., when a hardcover is reformatted as a mass-market paperback) would be a lot less work for the proofreader if designer-introduced hard hyphens were no longer a concern.

What they could mean to editors

We could nip the problem in the bud a bit earlier in the production process if copy editors also used discretionary hyphens (called optional hyphens in Microsoft Word—shortcut key: Ctrl/Command + -) after common prefixes in closed compounds. (As if copy editors needed any more responsibility!) It’s probably impossible to anticipate every possible bad word break, but a few global searches would be fairly easy to do at the copy-editing stage and would eliminate a lot of the distraction for the proofreader.

What to keep in mind

Ideally, all optional hyphens in Word would translate seamlessly into discretionary hyphens in InDesign. Apparently the two programs don’t always play nicely together, though, so if you’re a copy editor prepping a file for design, it might be worth sending a few test files to the designer you’re working with, to figure out if the special characters, including nonbreaking spaces, nonbreaking hyphens, and discretionary hyphens, among others, will come through.

Also, discretionary hyphens may cause problems for online text because different standards treat them differently, some translating discretionary hyphens into hard hyphens. Again, you may want to test some files, particularly in an ebook workflow, to see if inputting discretionary hyphens is worth the copy editor’s time or if they should be inserted by the designer and only as needed for the print publication. Luckily, designers can just as easily search an InDesign file for discretionary hyphens they’ve inserted and remove them for the ebook version.

How you can make the world a more discretionary place

Next time you’re proofreading and you notice one of those manually added hyphens that buggers up a word, just mention discretionary hyphens to the designer. The designers I spoke to were happy to learn about them and were excited about the prospect of saving proofreading time and, more importantly, not inadvertently introducing errors.

One thought on “Use hyphens wisely: Discretion is advised”

  1. Well, I’ll be. After 30 years in the biz, I still didn’t know about discretionary/optional hyphens. There’s always something to learn! Thanks, Iva, for the education.

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