This is a first — for me anyway.

The Economist hyphenates a three-letter word in their issue of 18 December: see the end of the third line. Hart’s Rules, the Oxford Bible of all composition apprentices, doesn’t actually forbid you to take over a single letter — because nobody would dream of doing such a thing. Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing, the Cambridge style bible, tells us that American comps generally follow the hyphenation shown in Webster’s Dictionaries (where of course splitting “the” after the “h” isn’t proposed). The Chicago Manual of Style implies disapproval by telling us we shouldn’t carry over two characters to the next line. It’s one of those things you just don’t do — everyone knows it, except for carelessly programmed computer systems.

The reason you break words is to keep the spacing on every line more or less even. The shorter the measure (line length) the harder this becomes, so word division and spacing tolerances in newspapers can be more daring than in book work. In this case word spacing on that third line is perhaps as tight as reasonable, while on the line below it’s pretty loose. Probably taking over the “th” to the fourth line would have loosened up line three, but not that much more than line four as it stands. But anyway, just look at the “the” at the end of the second line, and I think you’ll agree that pulling back that “e” could have been done at the expense of a tiny bit of space before the “w”following the comma. It’s not that they didn’t want to have to break “Zimbabwe” a couple of lines later — they are perfectly content to do so at the bottom of the paragraph. Any number of simple editorial changes would also have cured the trouble — they just had to look for opportunity. For instance, instead of “In 2019 he became” write “In 2019 he was”, or get rid of “a prestigious gong”* — nothing but a gain in my book — and so on and so on.

Clearly they forgot to tell their software developer that it wasn’t allowed to break such short words, and then didn’t notice the problem in proof reading.

See also Word-breaks.


* Antiquity is an accessible scholarly journal of archaeology, founded in 1927 by O. G. S. Crawford. In my day it was run by Glyn Daniel, and was an exemplification of the common-sensical Cambridge approach to archaeology. Since 1963 the journal has been owned by a charitable trust. It is now published by Cambridge University Press. (I did ask, but Professor Daniel would never play ball.) “The Antiquity Prize was created in 1994 by Editor Christopher Chippindale and the Antiquity Editorial Board in recognition of the fact that research funding was becoming increasingly competitive, the time to write difficult to find, and really good writing is ‘as rare and precious as ever’. They created the prize to honour and support the author(s) of the best contribution to each volume of Antiquity.” Whether any “gong” changes hands or not is not clear.