Hyphenation in technical documentation?

Subject: Hyphenation in technical documentation?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 01 Dec 2004 14:02:12 -0500

Paul Pehrson wondered: <<Today I talked to my supervisor about a problem with auto hyphenation in Frame. Using Frame's help, I figured out how to disallow hyphenation for certain words. As we were discussing this topic, he told me that recently another writer told him that "good technical writing" doesn't use hyphens, and we should update our template documents to turn off auto hyphenation.>>

That's an overly simplistic statement that rolls a whole bunch of issues into one blanket recommendation. There's no question that words hyphenated at the right margin can be slightly more difficult to understand than unhyphenated words: the reader must recognize the hyphen, interpret it as meaning "assemble the first part with the second part to create a single word", then interpret that word. That's two steps more than is required in the absence of the hyphenation. But if you manually review the hyphenation to ensure that it's effective (ideally using words split at syllables--"dictionary-based hyphenation"--rather than "split by algorithm"), hyphenation only imposes a minor cognitive burden on the reader.

Hyphenation is most necessary in fully justified text; in its absence, the software may create sometimes-large rivers of white space that interfere with reading. It's also true that fully-justified text can be slightly less readable than ragged-right text, though mostly because of the aforementioned rivers or (in inferior typesetting software) because the justification has been poorly implemented, leading to wildly uneven word spacing. So if you're using full justification, hyphenation is sometimes necessary; however, if you're using ragged-right, it can still be necessary to correct large gaps at the right margin.

Last but not least, there's hyphenation to create compound words. Hyphens can greatly increase the ease of comprehension for simple compound adjectives, usually made up of no more than 2-3 words. The problem arises when, as is often the case with engineers and scientists, the author stacks half a dozen words before the noun to create a huge compound adjective. In this case, the hyphens do indeed clarify the meaning of the compound, but the meaning would be easier to understand if you unroll the compound: for example, turn "a six-word-long-per-instance compound" would become "a compound that was six words long in each instance" or similar wording.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)



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Hyphenation in technical documentation: From: Paul Pehrson

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