Readers of books should ideally be unaware of the thought processes of designers and layout people, so that nobody has to stop and wonder why this or that decision was made in setting the type in the book they’re reading. The mission of design is to facilitate the smooth transmission of the message from author to reader: not to shout out, look what a beautiful job I’ve done. For design and layout people beautiful ought to be synonymous with invisible. But of course because we remain unaware of these thought processes, when we might wish to consider them we find that we remain unaware of them.

To me, the knowledge contained in the head of a book compositor was amazing. A seven-year apprenticeship can’t have been enough to internalize everything. Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers* Oxford University Press’ guide for workers in its printing plant (which closed in 1989) contains the following instructions on word-breaks.

DIVISION OF WORDS

Avoid division if at all possible, having regard for the requirements of good typography. [Which basically means don’t set the line with too much letterspacing — i.e. don’t set the line t o o  l o o s e just to avoid a word-break at the end.] Where word-breaks are necessary, however, the following rules apply:

(a) A minimum of two characters may be left behind and a minimum of three characters carried over at a word-break.

(b) Two successive hyphens only are allowed at the ends of lines.

(c) A divided word should not end a right-hand page.

(d) If the right-hand page is a full-page illustration or table, the facing left-hand page should not end with a hyphen.

And that’s it. Following these simple rules will avoid ugly and confusing word-breaking. Too many hyphens and your eye will begin to pick up the wrong line when flicking back and forth; too few characters and misunderstandings threaten. Turning the page is always an opportunity to loose the place, so don’t make the chances higher by breaking the word. (In this context see also Catchword.) Attention should be given to the structure of the word in making the decision to split it: don’t do pr-oductive or produc-tive. These sorts of rules are now incorporated into software, and will be applied without the benefit of human intervention. But as an overriding rule In Hart states “In borderline cases supervisors are to be consulted for a decision whether an exception is to be made.”

These rules are a distillation of 500 years of trial and error. Printers arrived at this sort of consensus by discovering that doing differently resulted in poor outcomes. Each compositor internalized the rules, which would be drummed into them when they were apprentices. Actually, the thinking about all this goes back more than 500 years, as scribes writing out manuscripts developed rules about all sorts of things, including word division.

There are some word-breaks which although they are by the rule should never be undertaken. The one that sticks in my mind is pre-gnant”

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* “Readers” refers here not to you or me snuggling up in an armchair to consume an OUP book — it refers to the proofreaders employed by all printers back then. When the type had been set it would go to an internal proof room where it was read against copy and sent back to the composing room for correction before a proof was ever sent out to the customer. I was at one time involved with the books of W. Edwards Deming, who held the view that Cambridge University Press was the best typesetter in the world because they never made a mistake. For an efficiency expert this was a slightly odd view as the reason for the apparent perfection was that the proof he was seeing had always been read and corrected before it was sent to him — not really the world’s most efficient use of labor. As the Press had closed the proof room by the time we were doing his books, we would send the proof to a freelance proofreader first, get corrections made, and then send the “perfect” proof to the author. I’m sure he went to his grave convinced of Cambridge’s infallibility.

Proof readers and compositors, whether they started out that way or become so as a result of years of experience, were often considerable experts in arcana. From time to time eminent professors of Greek or Mathematics in Cambridge would send notes of thanks to the compositor for saving them from errors in the subject areas in which they were meant to be the experts.