Hyphenation finally makes inroads into eBook readers

Apple has just released a new version (v1.2) of iBooks for the iPad and the iPhone. Usually this is not something I would care much about, but Apple has added one feature in particular that stands out in my mind – hyphenation.

As an author I have constantly been surprised that none of the eBook readers in the market seems to support proper hyphenation, not even the HTML-implemented soft hyphenation.

By adding this feature, finally, Apple is putting the pressure on Amazon and other eBook readers, and deservedly so, taking the text display on those devices – the thing they are actually optimized for one would think – out of the middle ages.

Hyphenation in text is an important typographic feature, not only for justified text blocks, but also for regular left justified reading. There is a reason why hyphenation has been made an integral part of our languageā€™s punctuation language rules. It can actually increase readability while also serving aesthetic purposes.

I could understand that Amazon and other eBook manufacturers might not have wanted to include full hyphenation in their devices because the dictionaries necessary to do so might have bloated the firmware, while the actual look-up might have slowed down the page display.

Therefore I checked at some point to see if they would at least support soft hyphenation,as it is implemented in the HTML standard. Few people know that HTML actually contains an entity character called ­ which makes a hyphenation suggestion for the renderer.

If you write a word like ten­den­cy in your HTML code, a fully implemented HTML-renderer uses these ­ characters to correctly hyphenate the word. It means these characters are invisible, unless a word wrap is in order, at which time the renderer will treat the ­ characters as guidelines to display something like tenden- cy, for example.

It is an HTML feature that is incredibly helpful but barely used. The Kindle, sadly failed my soft hyphenation tests, and my understanding is that until today so have all other eBook readers.

By including hyphenation – and with it, I expect soft-hyphenation – Apple has once again proven that they are just a bit ahead of everyone else. While this is, of course, a feature that should have been included in all eBook readers from day one, at least we can now expect the implementation of the feature to trickle down other systems as time goes on.


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