Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Lost artifacts: Hyphenation and typing

Gomers like me often comment about how our children are puzzled by bits of old technology, like rotary phones, typewriters, record players, and moon walks. How many, however, have noticed the disappearance of the typographic hyphen?

Even the Wikipedia article on hyphenation partly misses the mark (the author is doubtless too young to make the connection to the typewriter):
Hyphen - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

...When flowing text, it is sometimes preferable to break a word in half so that it continues on another line rather than moving the entire word to the next line. Since it is difficult for a computer program to automatically make good decisions on when to hyphenate a word the concept of a soft hyphen was introduced to allow manual specification of a place where a hyphenated break was allowed without forcing a line break in an inconvenient place if the text was later reflowed. Soft hyphens are most useful when the width is known but future editability is desired, as few would have the patience to put them in at every place they believed a hyphenated split was acceptable (as would be needed for their meaningful use on a medium like the Web).
In the days of typewriting, hyphenation was frequently done to give text a smoother appearance. Nowadays we either live with the ragged right margin or expect the wordprocessor to adjust spacing to give a smoother right margin. When writing for media that reflow text there's no way to manually insert a typographic hyphen, and I'm not aware of web authoring software that inserts tokens for soft typhens (I don't know how many browsers would support them anyway, and the impact on rendering speed would be annoying).

I think the typographic hyphen has passed into history -- unmourned. Really, there ought to have been a service.

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