As editors, we spend much of our time making sure that the content of a page conforms to certain standards—that punctuation is used appropriately; that sentences are not only grammatically correct but also readable, clear, and concise; and that stylistic choices (e.g., spelling, hyphenation, and capitalization) are consistent throughout an essay or a book. Once a manuscript has been typeset, however, focus begins to shift away from content and toward the aesthetic dimensions of the printed page. Checking page proofs means being on the lookout for mechanical errors such as missing commas or one too many spaces between words, among other things. But it also means identifying issues that may have been introduced in the typesetting process, such as rivers, ladders, and bad breaks (not to mention orphaned words and widowed lines).

Rivers

What we call rivers are conspicuous gaps in typeset material that appear across successive lines, forming what looks like a river on the page. Rivers are frequently introduced in the typesetting process when a text that was originally ragged right (i.e., flush with the left-hand margin but not with the right-hand margin) is justified (flush with the left- and right-hand margins). The line is stretched, in other words, and these so-called loose lines can lead to rivers.

Ladders

There are different types of ladders, including hyphen ladders and word ladders. Hyphen ladders occur when a hyphen appears at the end of multiple consecutive lines. A word ladder presents itself when the same word appears at the end of several lines in a row. At the MLA, we avoid hyphen and word ladders of four or more consecutive lines. If, however, a word ladder of four or fewer lines calls attention to itself (e.g., if the repeated word is not an article or a conjunction), we may still try to correct it.   

Bad Breaks

When it comes to deciding where to break, or hyphenate, a word across a line or page, there are good breaks and bad breaks. There are also words that should never be broken (think monosyllabic words, such as glove, month, or school). A bad break occurs when a word is broken where it shouldn’t be broken—for instance, breaking catchphrase as catchph-rase or modernity as mode-rnity would be considered a bad break. At the MLA, we consult Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to determine end-of-line word breaks. (Webster’s places dots between syllables that show where breaks can be made.) 

There are also certain types of breaks that we unequivocally avoid: these include double hyphens across lines (e.g., middle-class, not mid-dle-class); ending a recto, or right-hand, page with a broken word; and breaks between initials (e.g., C. S.-Lewis, not C.-S. Lewis). In our publications, the part of a word that follows a break must have at least three letters (e.g., sym-bolic, not symbol-ic), and while an ellipsis can begin or end a line, it cannot be broken across lines.

The advent of modern typesetting has led to the automation of such processes, but errors still manage to creep up in page proofs, especially with proper nouns, foreign language terms, and other less frequently used words. When deciding where to break a foreign language term not included in Webster’s, we follow the advice on word division given in The Chicago Manual of Style, supplementing this where necessary with information from another reputable source, such as Duden for German-language terms.  

Photo of Susan Doose

Susan Doose

Susan Doose is an assistant editor at the MLA. She received her PhD in German studies from Rutgers University, where her dissertation focused on the function of framing devices in German realist literature. Before coming to the MLA, she worked as a freelance copyeditor, translator, and German-language teacher.