Understanding the distinction between hard and soft hyphens in InDesign

…and why it matters for PDF accessibility.

Question: when is a hyphen not a hyphen? Answer: when it’s an artifact.

As hard and soft hyphens look the same, for sighted readers the consequences of confusing the two are likely to be minimal, if any. But to a screen reader user, a passage of text can be rendered almost unintelligible by the incorrect use of hard hyphens.

Hard hyphens, of course, should be used when the hyphen should always be honoured, such as in the phrase “editor­-in­-chief”. Although NVDA ignores such hyphens, JAWS (out-of-the-box) will announce this phrase as “editor dash in dash chief”, which is fine.

However, soft (or “discretionary”) hyphens, which map to Unicode as artifacts and hence are ignored by screen readers, should be used when words need to break across line breaks, for example in multi-column layouts or in narrow table column headers.

Problems arise when typesetters manually insert inappropriate hard hyphens instead of soft hyphens. This can result in every few words being broken by an audible “dash”, thus seriously reducing readability.

The solution

Fortunately, the problem is easily avoidable. To type a hard hyphen, of course, you will typically press the key to the right of the zero key (or if you want a non-breaking hyphen it’s Opt/Alt + Cmd/Ctrl and do the same).

To insert a soft hyphen, simply hold down Shift + Cmd/Ctrl and press the key to the right of the zero key.

Inserting hyphens automatically in InDesign

Even simpler though, is that InDesign will automatically add soft hyphens at line breaks if you enable Hyphenation for the relevant paragraph style (Paragraph Styles, Hyphenation and check the Hyphenate check box).

Enabling auto-hyphenation in InDesign’s Paragraph Styles Options dialogue box

Conclusion

Understanding the distinction between hard and soft hyphens is just one of many typographic skills that may have little relevance in the print world, but which are essential in the online world. Getting it wrong can result in time-consuming and expensive remediation work in Acrobat.

To find out more about creating accessible PDFs from InDesign check out our training course pages.

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