The Grammarphobia Blog: Breaking up is hard to do


Q: I thought I knew the rules for hyphenating syllable breaks, but apparently not. For instance, I assumed that “qu” shouldn’t be split since it’s pronounced as a single sound. But my dictionary breaks “equity” as eq-ui-ty and “aqua” as aq-ua. Why?

A: First of all, the rules of hyphenation—that is, for splitting a word that breaks at the end of a line of print or writing—have little or nothing to do with how a word splits when spoken.

The “qu” combo represents not one sound but two (“k” + “w”), and as we’ll explain later, it’s often split, both typographically and phonetically. Our advice is to forget about figuring out the “rules” here, and grab a dictionary that shows both the typographical and the phonetic splits.

When you look up a longer word, you’ll notice that the word is split into divisions in two different ways.

Take the word “accomplishment” as given in Merriam-Webster online. The word is first divided as ac·​com·​plish·​ment, with mid-level dots indicating where it splits for typographical purposes. The word is then divided again for pronunciation purposes: ə-ˈkäm-plish-mənt. 

Note the difference in the two divisions. The first two syllables aren’t split the same way for writing and for speaking.

The difference is even clearer with the kind of suffixed words that break one way in print and another in speech.

For instance, “ending” is hyphenated as end·​ing but pronounced EN-ding. And “orally” is hyphenated as o·​ral·​ly but pronounced OR-uh-lee. The suffixes “-ing” and “-ly” are separate syllables for hyphenation purposes, even when they’re spoken along with a preceding consonant.

As for words spelled with “qu,” we haven’t found any authoritative explanation for when the letters are split typographically and when they’re not. But after consulting several standard dictionaries, we can give you an idea of the usual conventions.

(1) When “q” comes between two vowels—as it usually does—the hyphen can either precede or follow the “q,” regardless of the spoken stress or the vowel value (long vs. short) of the preceding syllable.

  • Written words in which the hyphen precedes the “q” include “aquarium” (a·quar·i·um) … “aquatic” (a·quat·ic) … “acqueous” (a·que·ous) … “equal” (e·​qual) … “equator” (e·qua·tor) …“equestrian” (e·ques·tri·an) … “equidistant” (e·qui·dis·tant) … “equip” (e·quip) … “equinox” (e·qui·nox) … “obloquy” (ob·lo·quy) … “sequester” (se·ques·ter).
  • Written words in which the the hyphen follows the “q” include “aqua” (aq·ua) … “aqueduct” (aq·ue·duct) … “aquiline” (aq·ui·line) … “equable” (eq·ua·ble) … “equity” (eq·ui·ty) … “equitation” (eq·​ui·​ta·​tion) … “equitable” (eq·ui·ta·ble) … “iniquity” (in·iq·ui·ty).

(2) When “c” precedes “q,” the hyphen divides the two consonants even though they’re pronounced together: “acquaint” (ac·quaint) …  “acquiesce” (ac·qui·esce) … “acquire” (ac·quire) … “acquit” (ac·quit). In speech, such words have just a vowel as the first syllable.

We’ve taken all of those “qu” examples from two standard American dictionaries: American Heritage online and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th print ed.). We used those dictionaries because they show where a hyphen would theoretically go after a single letter, something you’re interested in knowing.

However, the question of hyphenating a word like “equal” (e·qual) is merely academic. In real life, no typographer would break a word and start a new line after only one letter. As any editor, proofreader, or compositor knows, you never strand (or “orphan”) a first letter at the end of a line.

That’s why Merriam-Webster doesn’t show hyphenations after a single opening letter, even if the letter is pronounced as a separate syllable. M-W’s entry for “equal,” for example, leaves the headword whole and undivided. It splits only the pronunciation, which it gives as ˈē-kwəl. The message: The word is left whole in writing but is spoken in two parts.

Three M-W editors explain all this in a “Word Matters” podcast that ends with a discussion of hyphenation conventions. And they note that in practice, few people today need to know how a word should break at the end of a line because word processing programs do it for us.

This may be why fewer and fewer dictionaries today offer hyphenation guides, especially dictionaries that are published solely online. Even those that do offer hyphenation guides may differ in these matters.

For instance, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a British source, disagrees with a couple of the American hyphenations cited above.

Where the American dictionaries have e·qui·nox, Longman has eq·ui·nox; where the Americans have eq·ui·ta·ble, Longman has eq·uit·a·ble.

So choose your dictionary and don’t try to suss out the “rules.”

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