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Can you recommend me a good source of hyphenation rules in English? Something that would begin with explaining how words are divided into syllables, which I am not entirely sure about.

For example, intuitively, I would split "recommendation" as re-commendation and "compare" as com-pare; however, a machine (which probably should know it) says, rec-ommendation and com-pare.

Is rec-ommendation correct at all? If yes, why?

By googling, I found the "maximal onset principle" saying that the second syllable grabs as many consonants as possible, as long as an English word can begin like this, so using that principle, it should be re-commendation. Additionally, it would make sense to have a break after a prefix, and re- is a prefix. (An unnecessary one in this word, as Latin 'commendatio' means 'recommendation', but it is still a prefix.) By that rule (I don't know if it is a rule in English, though), it would be, again, re-commendation. So why is rec-ommendation recommended in several sources, e.g.,

https://www.hyphenation24.com/word/recommendation/

(I'm happy with com-pare as it would be difficult to imagine an English word starting with mp-. In addition, com seems like a prefix, although I am not sure if it is thought of as a prefix in English.)

Thanks for any com-
ments!
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  • You might find this NGram interesting - it seems to show that is recommended was more likely to be hyphenated as is re-commended a century ago, but today it's almost always is rec-ommended. Whatever - it's a typesetter's stylistic choice, imho. Aug 12, 2018 at 13:00
  • The "rule" taught to elementary schoolers in the US is to put your hand under your chin and say the word. Each time your jaw pushes your hand, that's the start of a new syllable. That doesn't cover all of the rules, like double consonants, etc., but it suggests that your word would be re-commendation.
    – fixer1234
    Aug 12, 2018 at 13:59
  • I'm proofreading a chapter I wrote ... and will probably not ask for any changes in hyphenation (I just don't feel competent) but here's one more case I didn't understand: anal-yze (is it because -yze is a suffix?). I think I will just assume that they know what they are doing (and it's not such a big deal) -- but I'd still be grateful if anyone would help me understand these rules.
    – lebatsnok
    Aug 12, 2018 at 14:45

2 Answers 2

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Hyphenation is hard! The folks over at TeX stack exchange know about how to teach a computer how to hyphenate. There an answer notes:

Fowler's Modern English Usage, is a standard style guide for [British] English published by the Oxford University Press. Fowler says of hyphenation that:

The problems of hyphenation at the line-end are compounded in newspapers by the narrowness of the columns and the customary assumption in most printing that the right-hand margin, like the left-hand one, should be straight (or 'justified'). Who has not encountered bad end-of-line breaks like c-/hanging, mans-/laughter, rear-/ranged? [...]

It is usually best to divide a word after a vowel, taking over the following constant to the next line. In present participles take over -ing, e.g., divid-/ing, sound-/ing; but chuck-/ling, trick-/ling, and similar words. Generally, when two consonants or vowels come together one should divide between them, e.g. splen-/dour, appreci-/ate. Terminations such as -cian, -sion, and -tion should not be divided when forming one sound: divide as Gre-/cian, ascen-/sion, subtrac-/tion. Hyphened words should be divided at the hyphen, and in dictionaries a second hyphen may be used to clarify their spelling. This is not the end of the story: Ronald McIntosh lists thirty-three rules altogether for dividing words at the line-end. [...]

Very broadly, British practice has tended to emphasise morphological structure and word origin (as in triumph-/ant), and American practice has tended to give greater weight to the perceived pronunciation (c.f. trium-/phant).

Applying these rules would suggest splitting re-com-mend-a-tion, for a British publication, but perhaps rec-om-men-da-tion for US English. One factor to consider here is to distinguish between "recommendation" and "re-commendation" (ie to "commend again"). I don't think there would be any actual ambiguity, but it could disturb the flow of the reader.

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  • Thank you! This (i.e. Fowler's guide, or the new version edited by Burchfield, ISBN-13: 978-0198691266), as well as the references therein was exactly what I was looking for.
    – lebatsnok
    Aug 13, 2018 at 11:08
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There is no single set of rules. Different guidelines give different recommendations. The overall recommendation is to not hyphenate at all unless you have to because of short, multi-column presentation.

But there is no single set of "rules" to which you can refer.

If you look at Merriam-Webster, the first part of every definition is where it believes you should hyphenate the word—which mostly, although not always, falls on syllable breaks.

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  • Thanks! This complements the other answer: many dictionaries indicate hyphenation for every word. (e.g. ldoceonline.com/dictionary in addition to Merriam-Webster's); it is rec-ommendation according to Longman's dictionary as well.
    – lebatsnok
    Aug 13, 2018 at 11:12

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