Hyphenation and small thinking

One thing that we have to consider is how to let the text on a website flow from one line to another with less friction for the reader. Choosing the optimal line length, letter spacing and line height are not enough; we need to consider whether we will justify the text in a way that minimizes the white space variability between words and whether we will use hyphens to divide the words between lines. Hyphenation is used so frequently in a variety of texts that it is practically standard, so on the surface it seems that we can't argue against it. Yet, we should remind ourselves that there is not a single right way of writing as there isn't a single right way of approaching a problem in general.

Although we need to follow the rules of grammar and spelling, we may still have some flexibility how to apply punctuation. For instance, choosing to omit a comma in certain situations may not be a mistake at all. Commas partition sentences into more digestible chunks for the reader. By omitting a comma, we enable faster reading of the sentence; by placing a comma, we indicate the start of a new thought, so the reader needs to pause shortly in order to make sense of it. Punctuation can also be used for aesthetical reasons where normally it wouldn't be required. This introduces variety in how the whole text is perceived from a distance. When used correctly, punctuation marks help the reader to understand the subject.

It is not a good idea to use hyphenation for aesthetical reasons. Since each hyphen is at the end of the line, it is quite visible when the whole block of text is perceived at once. The left side of the text is aligned and the right isn't. But the same would be valid for any punctuation mark that we place at the end of the line.

Hyphenation carries a cognitive burden with itself that we often don't recognize. Everytime our readers see a hyphen, they need to memorize the partial word preceding it, move to the next line, retrieve the word from memory and concatenate it with its rest. These operations seem to happen very fast, so we are lying ourselves that they are free for the reader. (On a computer, reading from/writing to memory may be slower than doing calculation.) To see that they aren't, we may engage in a simple experiment. Take five pages of text from your favourite book, change them so that each line ends with a hyphen and then try to read this text. The experience will be quite interesting. If you were previously able to read for many hours, now you may get tired only after reading a couple of hours of hyphenated text. While this example is rather extreme, it illustrates the effect of hyphenation quite well. But it is also true that we normally don't see hyphens on each line, so this shouldn't be much of a problem.

Things become more interesting when we see the specific tools for automatic hyphenation on websites. If for something so simple like hyphenation we need an additional tool, what would we do if we needed some complex functionality? One tool for this, one tool for that... everything adds up. But even more problematic is to be unable to explain why this would be a good solution.

Paying attention about details is great design, but we should know which details matter as their weight is rarely equal. Using a tool for hyphenation may be a symptom of small thinking. Larry Page is one of the few people who has consistently warned us that we spend too much time thinking small, which takes a lot of our energy and prevents us from realizing our potential. Many intelligent people spend their time solving small or nonexisting problems. Or they seek to impress or to create parts for products, having no value on their own. This is a big waste of resources. The hyphenation problem gives us a sense of how prevalent this has become and it should serve as a warning to us, because we will often find ourselves operating in such mode. "Majoring in minors" should never be our goal as Robin Sharma says.