Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More on Syllable Breaks

OK, I just want to finish up this syllabification business. I posted the apologetic retraction as soon as I saw my error, but there's still a little more that needs to be said.

In my first post on syllabification, I wrote, "I propose that we stop worrying about syllabification. If a break is plausible and gives syllables that can be pronounced and isn't absurd, it's fine." On page 11a of Merriam-Webster's eleventh (quoted in the apologetic retraction), it says,

There are acceptable alternative end-of-line divisions just as there are acceptable variant spellings and pronunciations. It is, for example, all but impossible to produce a convincing argument that either of the divisions aus·ter·i·ty, au·ster·i·ty is better than the other. But space cannot be taken for entries like aus·ter·i·ty or au·ster·i·ty, and au·s·ter·i·ty would likely be confusing to many. No more than one division is, therefore, shown for an entry in this dictionary.

Many words have two or more common pronunciation variants, and the same end-of-line division is not always appropriate for each of them. The division fla·gel·lar, for example, best fits the variant \flə‑'je‑lər\ whereas the division flag·el·lar best fits the variant \'fla‑jə‑lər\.

In some ways, my intuitive approach--it's OK if it "is plausible and gives syllables that can be pronounced and isn't absurd"--is actually stricter than Merriam-Webster's approach. At least, it is if I add that the breaks shouldn't be misleading. Merriam-Webster says that "the division flag·el·lar best fits the variant \'fla‑jə‑lər\." Under my approach, flag·el·lar is incorrect. If I see "flag‑" at the end of a line, I'm going to pronounce it \flag\ (MW transcription, as in "you're a grand old flag" etc.)--there's not going to be a \j\ in the pronunciation. In cases like this, Merriam-Webster's syllable breaks are not just disputable, but downright misleading.