Break, break, break

🐇 🐇 🐇 In the 11/2 One Big Happy, Joe fails to honor a promise, which of course makes Ruthie think about hyphenating printed text:


NOAD on the verb break (Joe: sense 3a; Ruthie: sense 1a) and the noun word (Joe: sense 3b; Ruthie: sense 1a):

verb break:

1 [a] separate or cause to separate into pieces …

… 3 [with object] [a] fail to observe (a law, regulation, or agreement)

noun word:

1 [a] a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed

… 3 (one’s word) [a] one’s account of the truth, especially when it differs from that of another person: in court it would have been his word against mine. [b] a promise or assurance: everything will be taken care of — you have my word. …

(With apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his grief.)

to break one’s word. One of a set of idioms involving one’s word ‘one’s promise, assurance’, here:

break / go back on  one’s word and its opposite keep / keep to / stick to / honor  one’s word — also allowing the object noun promise rather than word (but not assurance): Joe broke his word / promise / *assurance; Joe kept his word / promise / *assurance

But also with the central verbs of possession HAVE (have someone’s word), coming into possession  GET (get someone’s word), and transfer of possession GIVE (give (someone) one’s word) — also allowing the object nouns promise and assurance:  I had / got Joe’s word / promise / assurance on this; Joe gave (me) his word / promise / assurance on this. (The having, getting, and giving are all metaphorical in such examples.

(Compare these verbs + one’s word with these verbs + disease names — measles, a cold, the flu etc — in another family of metaphorical usages: have measles etc., get measles, give someone measles etc.)

to break a word in print. By using a hyphen dividing syllables at the end of a line, in printed text that  is fully justified, as in the body of a newspaper story (which is printed in narrow columns). Consider the example of today’s lead story in the New York Times:

(#2) The heads, plus the first two paragraphs of the story

Heads are never hyphenated between syllables to make them fit into the available space, but bodies of stories routinely are (with “soft hyphens” that disappear when the text is quoted). Soft hyphens above:

co-ronovirus, coun-tries, in-creased, pan-demic, In-stitute, be-fore, pos-itive, offi-cials, in-fected, con-tact

Narrow columns mean short lines mean lots of soft hyphens. Fewer soft hyphens in books, which have longer lines. No soft hyphens at all in books for young children, because they constitute an impediment to reading — so the text in these books isn’t fully justified. Once kids can read smoothly, they can go on to tackle text with soft hyphens in them; reading from a newspaper is a tough task at first for the youngest readers, even the good ones.

Consequently, it’s something of a surprise that Ruthie knows about soft hyphens in printed material. But then we know that she is preternaturally sophisticated in many ways for a child of her age.

(But then there are such children. I was a very early reader, and, I am told, appeared in first grade already reading smoothy from newspaper stories — soft hyphens, advanced vocabulary, and all. And I could do it either out loud or silently.  Roughly 5th or 6th grade level. So of course I was impressed into service helping my classmates sound out words and the like. Stern advice from my parents: NEVER, EVER, show off your abilities, but use them to help your friends. And use them for yourself, quietly, in the back of the room and out of school. A route to finding an acceptable slot for myself in kidworld. And a push onto the path of becoming a teacher.)

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