Sometimes, word processors screw up hyphenation by hyphenating a series of consecutive lines. This just happened to me in a spectacular way:

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What's most annoying in the above case is that the text column was quite wide (full page width, 11 point type), so avoiding some of these breaks by stretching some inter-word spaces would not have been a problem. (The culprit, if you want to know, is Apple’s Page software.)

I have two questions: does this phenomenon have a name (it's sort of like a river, but with hyphens)? Does common word processing (Word, Page) software have options to avoid it?


1 Answer 1


For your two questions:

  1. Does this phenomenon have a name? I believe the (obscure) name you are looking for is "ladders" (which is usually used when you have 3 or more consecutive hyphenated lines); however, since most people are not too familiar with the term, I've also seen it referred to in generally descriptive terms like "consecutive hyphenated lines" or, even more generally, "consecutive hyphens".
  2. Do common word processing software have options to avoid it?

    • Apple's iWork Page: I don't have access to Apple's iWork Page, but from what I have read, that program does not offer much in the way of hyphenation control. As for other software:

    • Microsoft Word provides you with two options to improve the implementation of hyphens: "Hyphenation zone" and "Limit consecutive hyphens to:". The hyphenation zone (used most often, I believe, with ragged right hyphenated text) specifies the distance from the right text margin that hyphens are permitted. A larger hyphenation zone will most likely result in a more ragged right margin (and possibly fewer hyphens), while a smaller hyphenation zone would most likely result in the opposite. Combined with the option of limiting consecutive hyphens, you can avoid the ladder effect while still getting decent hyphenation results.

    • LibreOffice/OpenOffice.org Writer provides you with a basic option to set the "Maximum number of consecutive hyphens" in the paragraph settings dialog, but beyond that, not much more control.

More professional programs like InDesign (and to a certain extent, Scribus) will offer many more settings to help improve the appearance of hyphenated text, for instance, allowing for optical margins (where certain text elements like hyphens are in the margin area, allowing for the text itself to be right aligned).

  • Proofreaders call them ladders, and I wasn't aware it was obscure! :) We also use that to refer to repeated words or syllables at the end of lines (like three "the"s in a row). Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 20:12
  • @LaurenIpsum, maybe obscure wasn't the right word. I just know I had to think quite a bit to remember what I had heard them called once or twice, and then when I searched for "typography ladders" I wasn't getting anything definitive from what I would consider "reliable" sources. Perhaps I should try searching with "proofreader ladders"? But, now that I think of it, I do remember having to look for ladders at the beginning of lines too, right? Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 2:54
  • yes, but ladders at the beginning of lines are rarer for some reason. They do crop up occasionally. Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 3:03
  • @LaurenIpsum, Trivia: I don't have a copy of the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style handy, but according to the online reference (section 7.43) "For aesthetic reasons, no more than three succeeding lines should be allowed to end in hyphens. (Such hyphens are sometimes referred to as a hyphen stack.)" Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 6:44
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    I haven't seen that term in practice, but it's as useful as any other. You can call three hyphens in a row "Ralph" if everyone agrees on the definition. Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 13:15

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