Widows and orphans

Widows and orphans—how sad is that? In typesetting, the words denote sad situations: a word or a line of type separated from the rest of a paragraph. Definitions vary, but because I used to work in a typesetting house before desktop publishing was invented (yes, we used stone tablets and chisels), I’ll give my definitions: a widow is the last line of a paragraph that sits alone at the top of a page or column; an orphan is the first line of a paragraph or (shudder) a heading that sits alone at the bottom of a page or column.

The orphaned headings in the picture above make me shudder. (They’re from the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, Sep. 20, 2015.)

Words Into Type is blunt about it: “Widows must be eliminated.” It
doesn’t address orphans, but if it did, I imagine it would be similarly stern.

Fortunately, widows and orphans are usually easy to eliminate. The word-processing and layout programs I’m familiar with prevent them automatically. Microsoft Word’s default paragraph formatting includes widow and orphan control: it will push an orphan to the next page or column, and it will push an extra line to the next page or column to prevent a widow. Also, its heading styles include a paragraph attribute called “keep with next.” It will push a heading to the next page or column to keep it with the first paragraph that follows. You can apply this attribute to other paragraphs that should stay with the next line—for example, a paragraph that introduces a numbered list.

You also can defeat the “keep with next” attribute by making the next paragraph blank. This is not desirable, but people do it when they use returns (that is, type blank lines) to create space between paragraphs. As far as Microsoft Word is concerned, a blank line with a paragraph return at the end is just another paragraph, and “keep with next” will keep a heading with that blank line but not with the paragraph after that, the one that has text.

To ensure that “keep with next” does its job, don’t type blank lines to create paragraph spacing. Use paragraph formatting to apply space above and below (Word’s heading and paragraph styles already include such spacing).

This advice of mine doesn’t exhaust the possibilities of things that can go wrong. I don’t know how the Free Lance–Star ended up with those orphaned headings. But using the standard tools that come with word-processing and layout programs can keep most orphans and widows out of your type.


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