Word division rules: differences between German and English

In this blog post you can read about the differences and similarities in the rules on word division in English and German.

Similarities in word division

Word division and hyphenation in English

Simple words in German are usually separated into syllables. Examples: Ver-gnü-gen, be-vor-ste-hen, Vor-sil-be.

This separation based on syllables also applies in English, e.g., grand-fa-ther, walk-ing. There should preferably be three, but at least two, letters at the end of a line. In case of doubt, English grammar books advise you to check the entries in monolingual dictionaries, which provide a breakdown of the syllables, e.g., break·wa·ter or fu·ne·re·al. This form of word division is common in American English in particular. All syllables must also be pronounceable.

Compound words

In German, compound words are separated into their components, e.g., Haus-tür, Schiff-fahrt, Damen-jacke.

In British English, the preferred way to separate compound words often depends on the etymology, taking into account factors such as the word origins (e.g. Greek or Latin), prefixes and suffixes.

Fixed combinations of consonants and vowels

There are certain combinations of consonants in German (e.g. ch, ck, sch and ph), double vowel sounds (e.g. ai, au, ei and eu) and vowels that are not pronounced but lengthen the vowel sound (e and i), that are not separated.

In English, there are also some vowel combinations that are not separated, which means that some words cannot be divided, such as power or prayer. Certain combinations of consonants are also not separated when pronounced as a unit (e.g. th and ph).

Word division rules English and German

Reading flow and meaning

In German, dividing words in a way that would disturb the flow of reading or cause confusion about the meaning of the word should be avoided, even if this would actually follow the rules. For example, Die-besgut rather than Diebes-gut, Au-tomaten instead of Auto-maten or Brau-nerde rather than Braun-erde.

Ease of reading has the highest priority when dividing words in English. With this in mind, it is recommended to avoid dividing words at all, or only divide words if this is unavoidable (for example, in newspaper columns).

Differences when dividing words

Several consonants and consonants within a word

In German, when there are several consonants in a row, the last consonant is placed on the new line. A single consonant is also placed on the next line, e.g. Au-gen, Trop-fen, Pfer-de. The rule of never separating s and t no longer applies since the German spelling reform.

In English, word division after the first consonant is often recommended, e.g. mon-strous. With double consonants, however, the rule is to separate the word between the two consonants, e.g. bat-tle, a similarity to German.

Short vowels

In English, short vowels are not left on their own, e.g. rap-id. In German this is not a problem, e.g. kna-ckig.

Compound words with hyphens

These are not divided in English, even if it would be possible for individual parts of the word. Accordingly, father-in-law is not divided at the end of the line as fa-ther-in-law.

Proper names

Proper names are generally not divided in English, even if the syllables would permit it.

To sum up:

in German, rules about word division can be found in Duden, while in English the dictionaries lay down the law on word division. When writing your English text, use the following in case of doubt: Oxford Dictionaries for British English and Merriam Webster for American English. In general, word division is much less common in English than in German.

Would you like us to proofread your English text? Then simply email it to us. We can make sure that all the word division rules are followed.






Summers, Della: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 3rd edition, Essex, 2003

Gee, R. and Blundell, K.: English grammar, London, 1983