The End of the Line: Fussing Over Word Breaks and Stacks
A piece of equipment breaks down. An order breaks during shipment. A manager starts taking two-hour lunch breaks. What else is there to say? In a broken world, breaks are a pesky part of business.
In Bible publishing, editors, designers, and typesetters wrestle with two other kinds of breaks: word breaks and stacks. Both can be distracting, and both keep us busy.
Word breaks are how we make lines of text fit into an allotted space and make them easier to read. Without appropriate word breaks, text can end up either crammed too tightly together or spaced too far apart. When word breaks are used carelessly, they become a hindrance. When deployed indiscriminately, they’re like jarring, irritating potholes in a reader’s journey through the Bible.
We recently proofed a Bible that had 500 word breaks in Genesis. Five hundred! Before we even reached the second book of the Bible. Over the course of 832 pages, that Bible had 8,762 word breaks! That sounds like a lot, but it’s fairly typical.
And we check word breaks in every Bible we work on. So, what really is the problem?
Bad Word Breaks Are Distracting
The goal of a new Bible project is to get people to engage with the One the Word reveals, so anything that gets in the way of that divine encounter is a problem. Imagine a reader getting swept up in the truth and power of a passage but then getting tripped up as he or she must stop to make sense of a clumsy word break. Even momentary disruptions in reading can hinder deeper understanding.
We do everything in our power to avoid word breaks that divert a reader’s focus—even for a moment.
Bad Word Breaks Are Confusing
What’s worse than a distracting word break? A confusing one.
Layout programs are designed to automatically insert word breaks—for our convenience. But in our experience, these programs are wrong much of the time. Technology might be getting smarter and better, but some things still need human intervention.
Consider the word present. You’re at the end of a line and the entire word won’t fit. Do you break it as “pre-sent” or “pres-ent”?
It depends. The word gets broken differently, depending on whether it’s a noun, a verb, or an adjective. Even though the average reader isn’t a professional editor, our brains know that pre-sent is a verb (the act of offering someone something), and the stress is on the second syllable. The word pres-ent can be a noun (the thing that is given) or an adjective (meaning to be at hand). Break the word in the wrong place and you’ll confuse the reader. (In addition to the word present, other words present a similar challenge: attribute, object, rebel, refuse—and the list goes on.)
As the saying goes, if you confuse the reader, you’ll lose the reader. That’s why we take great care to limit word breaks. But when they can’t be avoided, we make sure they don’t muddy the message of a text.
Bad Word Breaks Are Disturbing
Leave your page design software in charge of breaking words at the ends of lines and certain biblical words—think Nazirite and Shittim—can get divided in an unfortunate way. The result can leave sixth-grade boys snickering and elbowing one another and adults shaking their heads. And even without the snickers, do you really want Jesus’s “demon-stration” of God’s power to read, “Jesus’s demon-”?
That’s the last thing anyone wants—time with God derailed by unnecessary, intrusive thoughts and a devotional time hijacked by words that don’t belong.
Stacks Can Be a Problem Too
While our team is double-checking all those word breaks, we also check stacks. Stacks are what editors and designers call consecutive lines that begin or end with the same word, word ending, or punctuation mark.
Like word breaks, stacks present a typesetting dilemma. They pose a visual challenge and can even play tricks on a reader. Instead of reading effortlessly from one line to the next, a stack of the same word or phrase can cause your eye to skip a line, or even two.
Here’s an example:
It can happen at the beginning of a line too:
Like bad word breaks, stacks can also cause confusion. Stacks require readers to break their train of thought, back up, and reread. Suddenly the reader is no longer in the text experiencing it but outside of it, trying to make sense of the words.
Rereading is not the end of the world, of course. However, stacks are just another way readers can get frustrated. They can also contribute to that diabolical whisper so many Bible readers hear in their minds: “See how complicated this ancient book is? All these tiny, strange words on all these thin pages—I’ll never understand it!”
A two-column Bible produces about 115,000 lines of Bible text, with the potential for stacks to appear at either side—left-hand or right-hand—of each column. Between stacks and word breaks, our team must check over a quarter of a million places where these could occur!
Why do we check so closely? Because God’s Word is worth it. We don’t want any reader anywhere closing God’s Word and breaking early.
A quarter of a million potential problems? Let our Scripture Integrity Team handle it for you. Contact us.