In typesetting, widows and orphans are words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph. There is some disagreement about the definitions of widow and orphan; what one source calls a widow another calls an orphan. The Chicago Manual of Style uses these definitions:
- A paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page/column, thus separated from the rest of the text.
- A paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page/column.
- A word, part of a word, or very short line that appears by itself at the end of a paragraph. Orphans result in too much white space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page.
Remembering the terms
Another way to think is that orphaned lines appear at the "birth" (start) of paragraphs; widowed lines appear at the "death" (end) of paragraphs.
Alternately, here's one more mnemonic device: "An orphan is alone from the beginning; a widow is alone at the end."
Writing guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, generally suggest that a manuscript should have no widows and orphans even when avoiding them results in additional space at the bottom of a page or column. However, in its 16th edition (2011) the Chicago Manual of Style suggests a new convention in which pages may end with the first line of a new paragraph. Some techniques for eliminating widows include:
- Forcing a page break early, producing a shorter page;
- Adjusting the leading, the space between lines of text (although such carding or feathering is usually frowned upon);
- Adjusting the spacing between words to produce 'tighter' or 'looser' paragraphs;
- Adjusting the hyphenation of words or characters within the paragraph;
- Adjusting the page's margins;
- Subtle scaling of the page, though too much non-uniform scaling can visibly distort the letters;
- Rewriting a portion of the paragraph;
- Reduce the tracking of the words;
- Adding a pull quote to the text (more common for magazines); and
- Adding a figure to the text, or resizing an existing figure.
An orphan is cured more easily, by inserting a blank line or forcing a page break to push the orphan line onto the next page to be with the rest of its paragraph. Such a cure may have to be undone if editing the text repositions the automatic page/column break.
Similarly, a single orphaned word at the end of a paragraph can be cured by forcing one or more words from the preceding line into the orphan's line. In web-publishing, this is typically accomplished by concatenating the words in question with a non-breaking space and, if available, by utilizing the orphans: and widows: attributes in Cascading Style Sheets. Sometimes it can also be useful to add non-breaking spaces to the first two (or few) short words of a paragraph to avoid that a single orphaned word is placed to the left or right of a picture or table, while the remainder of the text (with longer words) would only appear after the table.
Most full-featured word processors and page layout applications include a paragraph setting (or option) to automatically prevent widows and orphans. When the option is turned on, an orphan is forced to the top of the next page or column; and the line preceding a widow is forced to the next page or column with the last line.
In technical writing where a single source may be published in multiple formats, and now in HTML5 with the expectation of viewing content at different sizes/resolutions, use the word processor settings that automatically prevent widows and orphans. Manual overrides like inserted empty lines or extra spaces can cause unexpected white space in the middle of pages.
- Carter, Rob A widowed line, highlighted in yellow. Day, Ben. Meggs, Philip. Typographic Design: Form and Communication 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons: 1993. p. 263
- Chicago Manual of Style
- Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. 3rd ed. Hartley and Marks Publishers: 2004. pp. 43-44 ISBN 0-88179-206-3
- Chicago Manual of Style, 3.11 Overall appearance: "A page should not begin with the last line of a paragraph unless it is full measure and should not end with the first line of a new paragraph."
- Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, 2.113: "A page should not begin with the last line of a paragraph unless it is full measure. (A page can, however, end with the first line of a new paragraph.)"