Hyphenation is a Drag

15 years ago, the word processing software I used was WordPerfect 5.1. It wouldn’t be able to compete with any current software, except for one thing: hyphenation. I have yet to see any word processing or type setting software with hyphenation as good as that of WordPerfect 5.1.

I co-edit two journals typeset by two different people, and the beyond all comparison most common proof error I have to correct is crappy hyphenation. This is a big deal in Swedish where composite words are written without spaces or hyphens, just like in German. Automatic hyphenation always screws up when the second component starts with a vowel or multiple consonants. In English, without the space or hyphen, you’d get hyphenations like “psychoa-nalysis”, “irono-re”, “spacea-lien”, “stormt-rooper” and “ringw-raith”.

Bronsåldern and järnåldern, the Bronze and Iron Ages, cannot be hyphenated bron-såldern and jär-nåldern. Nor is bol-mört or hor-nuggla something I’d like to subject our readers to.

WordPerfect 5.1 had an easily accessible list of hyphenation exceptions. The first time I saw bron-såldern, I taught the program to hyphenate that brons-ål-dern, and then the problem was solved, permanently. Well, not permanently. Only until I switched to Microsoft Word.

I wonder if those exception lists are still around, but hidden in today’s bloated software packages, so that nobody knows how to use them.


  1. #1 Hans Persson
    May 22, 2007

    The very few times that I still need to do layout for paper, LaTeX gives me the possibility of keeping a permanent list of hyphenation exceptions.

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 22, 2007

    … and the user friendliness of LaTeX makes WordPerfect 5.1 look really, really hi-tech.

  3. #3 kai
    May 22, 2007

    Precisely so. I certainly can’t come up with anything more user-friendly than Emacs+LaTeX–it’s fast, never crashes, does what I want, has support for everything I want and should it for once not have exactly the thing I need I can fix it myself. Really, what more do you want?

    And don’t give me “learning curve”, I know empirically from having taught scores of students that the basics of LaTeX can be learned in the course of an afternoon. (Mastery then is for a lifetime, thus proving that it is worthwhile.)

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 22, 2007

    Read my lips: Red. Lines. Under. Misspelt. Words.

  5. #5 kai
    May 22, 2007

    M-X ispell

  6. #6 llewelly
    May 22, 2007

    Kai, it’s M-x flyspell-mode that provides dynamic underlining of misspelt words in emacs. Has been since at least 1997 or so. About that time several linux distros started distributing emacs with flyspell on by default, and I to reconfigure emacs to turn it off.

  7. #7 Hans Persson
    May 23, 2007

    There’s even something called “lyx” for non-GUI-challenged people. It is simply a GUI frontend to the LaTeX layout engine. I haven’t actually tried it myself, though.

  8. #8 kai
    May 23, 2007

    llewelly, yeah, I don’t like dynamic spell check either, so I only run a spell-check session when I feel like it.

  9. #9 Martin R
    May 23, 2007

    Is there any software that will run the spell checker for me when Kai feels like it?

  10. #10 kai
    May 23, 2007

    Sure, that shouldn’t be too complicated to do. You are running a Mac now, aren’t you? So, I can make you a droplet on to which you can drag any files you want spellchecked; the droplet sends me an email message saying you want your file spell-checked and then, when I feel like it, I will send an email message back, which with the use of a suitable Mail rule will start ispell on your machine for the relevant file. And I will not even need to see the file itself. Aren’t computers fantastic!? 😉

  11. #11 Martin R
    May 24, 2007

    No no, Kai, that would mean that the spell checker started when we both agreed to it. What I’m thinking of is a setup where (if turned off) my computer will start when you feel like spell checking, and the document you feel needs your attention gets checked. There might even be an option for you to create documents on my hard disk for checking. I imagine that this procedure would immediately get 95% of all system resources.

  12. #12 kai
    May 24, 2007

    Oh, that just requires me to get admin access to your computer, in which case I can even power-up your machine remotely. No sport at all.

    On the other hand, then I’d get to write fictional research reports for your journals, and that would be interesting – I think I could come up with some startling revelations about the infamous Mälaren bol-mört, known as the roger roach in English.

  13. #13 Martin R
    May 24, 2007

    I hope one day to approach your level of mastery in that ancient Japanese art form Vikbolandet, which combines hours of exquisite erotic pleasure with the practice of origami.

  14. #14 kai
    May 24, 2007

    An important archaeological project is to find the origins of that special shade of pink used to paint boats – skutskär.

  15. #15 Bob O'H
    May 25, 2007

    Have you looked at OpenOffice? You can decide where to put your hyphens, and set up a user-defined dictionary. They also have a Swedish language project, so you can hyphenate your pink boats for everyone to see.

    And you get to annoy your Word-using colleagues when you give them a piece of text with lots of equations. 🙂


  16. #16 Martin R
    May 25, 2007

    Yeah, I run OO on two of the four machines I use. But I think the hyphenation function really sucks. There doesn’t seem to be any unsupervised hyphenation, and it’s way too unaggressive, leaving lots of too-short lines. Am I missing something?

  17. #17 kai
    July 16, 2007

    Beating a bit on the dead horse, here is an excellently relevant and informative thread on comp.text.tex.

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