Does hyphenation increase readability?


All I could find on the subject was this paper, which is pretty interesting in itself. But it only deals with preference. 57% of the test subject prefers hyphenated text.

This is kind of surprising to me, because I get the feeling hyphenation hinders the ability to take up the entire word in one glance. Does anyone know whether there are any experiments out there that measure actual reading time?

Glassman, Tracy (1997). Principles of Typography for the Screen. Master’s thesis. Rochester NY, USA: Rochester Institute of Technology.

2/8/2017 1:43:00 PM

Accepted Answer

Why justify

Justification can make an important contribution to extended reading: Taming the visual 'noise' in a page of text. Nick Shinn made a particularly keen observation in this regard on Typophile:

Justification avoids the "interference" of having shapes and coinicidences occur at the right column edge, which can be a distraction, as the reader will interpret these as potentially significant. And indeed they may be, as statistically a short line tends to indicate a paragraph end.

You'll see that most long text documents use justified setting. Justified setting can fall apart without hyphenation, ending up with gaping holes in the text. The holes create a situation where a reader accidentally jumps between lines, losing their place in the text. So, consequently, hyphenation increases legibility in this case by eliminating a bigger problem.

There has been research specifically on readers' ability to 'see' words when hyphenated and there was no loss of comprehension -- of course, I can't dig up any of that info now :/ I suspect longer texts benefit from more able readers and greater context so any gaps that do arise are filled in cognitively.

How to justify

The trouble is, setting justified text is a skill that takes time to master. Here's a Typophile thread on fine tuning your justification settings. This is a fantastic, detailed overview from some real masters of text setting. Unfortunately, Kent Lew's valuable settings window screen shot is now missing. There's still plenty to learn there.

That discussion highlights a very important consideration: Employ the full gamut of justification control provided in long-document layout software for the best results. You can achieve better justified spacing and fewer hyphens if you set proper limits on

  • Word spacing
  • Character spacing
  • Character scaling (just a little please)

This all depends on context, of course.

Just for fun

And how could you complete a typography debate without a little client bashing: This lengthy discussion on Typophile centers around a client that wanted hyphenation eliminated. There is some great stuff in there, including links to related discussions. Synopsis:

  • Justified text without hyphenation is a bad idea.
  • Justified or Flush Left is a matter of taste.
  • A narrow measure without hyphenation will fail.

(Can you sense my obsession with the topic?)

11/28/2012 6:44:00 PM

All given answers here seems to be only for English.

I just want to add another language: German.

German has a lot of long words (much longer as English words). If you want to typeset a German text on paper with justification you can do it only with hyphenations. LaTeX does a very good job with automatic hyphenations for the German language. It also knows the rule that in German there are only a maximum of 3 consecutive hyphens (ladders, rows above each other with hyphenations at the end of the line) allowed.

Hyphenation is only bad if it can change the meaning of the hyphenated word, for example the German verb "beinhalten" should only hyphenated as "be-inhalten" (contain, containing) and not as "bein-halten" (could be read as "Bein halten" (leg hold)).