How to Solve Typographic Widows and Orphans

Discussions of typographic widows and orphans normally start with an argument about definitions and what these terms precisely mean. But for the sake of this discussion — and because I’m writing it — let’s use my definitions for the time being. At the end, you can use whatever terms you like for these conditions, as long as we all agree on solutions to the problems they raise.

Most everyone agrees that a widow is a short last line of a paragraph. According to what I learned as a lad, a widow becomes a problem when it’s so short that it creates the visual impression of a blank line between paragraphs. The wider the line length (also called measure), the more impact a very short widow can have. A hyphenated widow — in which the last line of a paragraph is a morsel of a hyphenated word — is a particularly egregious subspecies.

In the following text (set in 11/14 Georgia over 25 picas), a rash of widows appears. The first paragraph has a hyphenated widow; bad in itself, it is also so short that it barely covers the 2-em paragraph indent below it. A second widow appears at the end of the third paragraph. These need to be fixed. The short line at the end of the fourth paragraph might be considered a problem if all the other last lines on the page nearly filled the measure. In this context, though, it’s marginally acceptable.

Many typographic manuals don’t even recognize the existence of an entity called an orphan, but it’s a useful term to describe a short portion of a paragraph — either a beginning or an end — that’s badly positioned within a column, again at either beginning or end. The problem with orphans is that they mar the geometry of the page, creating the appearance of a bit of text that seems to be flaking off the rest of the column. When the first line of a paragraph appears as the last line of a column, or the last line of a paragraph — especially a short one (a widow) — appears at the top of a column, the column’s corner appears to be dented, especially if the margins are justified.

Although a one-line orphan is certainly bad, just how many lines of type should by definition constitute an orphan is another arguing point. In most layouts, I’d say two, with the possible exception of newspaper type, where very narrow measures and very shallow paragraph indents mitigate the damage. A three-line sliver of a paragraph has enough bulk to hold its own at the top or bottom of a column and maintain the rectangular geometry of the whole column.

In the page below, the first column ends with an orphan, and the short remainder of that paragraph forms another orphan at the top of the second column (ending with a widow, for good measure). While the first two lines of a paragraph might not constitute an orphan in this layout, a subhead and a single text line, as at the bottom of the second column, certainly does.

Now we come to the clash of definitions. In the middle of a column, if the last line of a paragraph fills only half the measure, that’s no problem typographically. But when that half line appears at the top a column, it is a problem. Why? I would say, because it’s an orphan — a piece of paragraph stranded in a bad position. The problem is not its length but its position.

This is the way I was trained to think about type, and it works for me, and I see the widows and orphans as two distinct problems. The venerated type and style guide, Words into Type — which does not recognize a thing called an orphan — defines a widow as “a line of less than full measure occurring as the first line of a page.”

Lending Widows a Hand
But whatever you call them, text-processing and page-layout programs don’t deal well with these things. In some programs you can eliminate hyphenated widows by telling your program not to hyphenate the last word of a paragraph. In Adobe InDesign, for example, you do this in Hyphenation Settings, found in the Paragraph panel menu. To prevent the last word of a paragraph from hyphenating in QuarkXPress, you have to manually put a discretionary hyphen (Ctrl- or Command-hyphen) before the last word in every paragraph.

There is no way to prevent widows — very short last lines of paragraphs — because no program allows you to specify a minimum tolerable last-line length. If there were (say, as a percentage of the measure), the program could adjust its composition of that paragraph to stretch or pinch word and character spaces to either lengthen the widow or draw it up into the previous line.

What I call widows need to be fixed manually.

Your only tool — short of editing the text — is to tweak tracking slightly. This will sometimes cause a paragraph to re-rag, creating new line endings to either add to the widow (by loosening tracking) or draw it up into the previous line (by tightening it).

Here’s a second look at the earlier sample that was beset by widows, all of which are fixed here with very minor tracking changes. Tightening tracking by 5/1000 em in the first paragraph not only drew up the widow, it also produced a color for the whole paragraph that better matches its neighbors. The third paragraph’s tracking was tightened by only 2/1000 em, enough to draw the widow up into the previous line. The fourth paragraph — the one with the borderline widow — had its tracking loosened by 6/1000 em, which added text to the last line.

If you see relatively loose lines in the problem paragraph, look to tighten the text and draw the widow up. If the paragraph’s spacing is already fairly tight, try opening up tracking a bit to force more text down onto the last line, filling out the widow. If your program balks at hyphenating in a way you think would help, try adding a discretionary hyphen.

Keep a close eye on how the color of your paragraph changes when you do this. Any tracking changes you make should be modest, because tracking changes run the risk of making the paragraph noticeably darker or lighter than surrounding paragraphs. When noticeable color changes are unavoidable, try altering the tracking of surrounding paragraphs to camouflage the spacing variation you’ve created.

There will be times when the only solution to a troublesome widow is to change the text.

Orphans and the Failure of “Keeps”
Word processors and page-layout programs attempt to eliminate what I call orphans — a line or two of a paragraph stranded at the top or bottom of a column — through a system of controls collectively known as “keeps.” Using these, you can specify that, for example, the last three lines of a paragraph must always be kept together and never be separated at a column break. You can do this to glue the first or last few lines of a paragraph together, or to bind a subhead to the first couple of lines of text that follow it, to keep the subhead from being orphaned. Keeps options are paragraph attributes, so they can be incorporated into paragraph styles.

Access InDesign’s keeps options through the Paragraph palette menu. The options shown below include the ability to tie a specific paragraph with a specified number of lines that follow it, or to apply global rules that prevent paragraph fragments of less than a minimum size from appearing at the top or bottom of a text frame.

These controls work well, but only in situations where you’re willing to have your columns end short of the bottom of the page. In single-column word-processed documents this may be fine. But it won’t work in a book, and it won’t work in a newspaper. It may work in some magazines and ads that have a “ragged bottom” layout, in which all columns don’t have to finish on the same baseline.

When uniform column depths is a must, using “keeps” to control orphans only works if you vertically justify your text. Vertical justification is a process that forces your text to fill columns by expanding the leading between lines and paragraphs. When vertical justification is turned on, your program will push an orphan from the bottom of one column to the top of the next and pad out the leading of the first column to make up the shortfall.

In InDesign, you turn on vertical justification for a text frame in the Object > Text Frame Options dialog box. You can apply this to any number of linked frames. You can do likewise in QuarkXPress in the Item > Modify > Text dialog. In both cases you can limit the amount that the program will stretch spaces between paragraphs before it will start to expand leading between the rest of the lines of text.

Vertical justification is a subject in itself, which I’ll address in a future column. It’s the key to a process called batch pagination, a technique that uses elaborate sets of controls and layout rules that allow for successful robotic page layout.

If you’re obliged to stick to a page grid, or diving into vertical justification is too daunting, you can eliminate orphans using the same techniques — primarily manipulating tracking — that you’d use to eliminate a widow. But to eliminate an orphan, you may have to readjust the tracking of pages of text to change the lengths of enough paragraphs to push the problem orphan into the next column or draw it back into the previous column.

Below is that orphan-beset page revisited. Tightening the tracking (-5/1000 em) of the second paragraph in the first column shortened it by one line, adding a line to the orphan at the bottom of the page. Tightening the tracking of that short paragraph (-7/1000 em) drew the widow “em” up one line, eliminating the remaining orphaned line at the top of the second column. With these line changes, the orphaned subhead at the bottom of the second column is now supported by two text lines that follow it.

Changing your hyphenation settings — perhaps only for a paragraph or two — may buy you the line-ending changes you need by allowing paragraphs to re-rag in ways that help your cause.

Depending on your layout — and your luck — you may be able to cause text to reflow by adjusting the tracking of picture captions, causing them to pick up or lose a line and the text above or below the illustration or photo to reflow accordingly.

The problem with reaching for solutions far beyond the afflicted paragraphs is the risk that you’ll provoke other widow and orphans problems elsewhere. Again, text changes may be the easiest solutions.

One last word: Because the appearance — and disappearance — of widows and orphans is contingent on how lines end, be aware that any change to the text in a laid-out page may create new problems. Whenever possible, do your charitable work on behalf of these poor dears after all text editing has been completed. A change to a single word on page 1 that lengthens or shortens a paragraph can ripple all the way through a long document.


Posted on: January 18, 2010

James Felici

James Felici has worked in the publishing industry—in both editorial and production—for more than 30 years. A veteran journalist and former managing editor of Publish magazine, he has set type by hand as well as on systems from IBM, Linotype, Compugraphic, CCI, and Magna. His books include The Complete Manual of Typography (Peachpit Press), The Desktop Style Guide (Bantam/ITC), How to Get Great Type Out of Your Computer (North Light), and contributions to The Macintosh Bible (Peachpit Press). He has written for numerous publications, including PC World, Macworld, and The Seybold Report, and has been a featured speaker at Seybold Seminars, Macworld Expo, and other events worldwide.

23 Comments on How to Solve Typographic Widows and Orphans

  1. That was one of the better explanations of widows and orphans I’ve seen in a long time. One question, is the sample page shown in the article one you created specifically for the article?

  2. I believe Jim did create the sample for this article. He can confirm or deny that when he returns from globe-trotting in mid-February 2010.

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief,

  3. Great post with more detail than I’ve seen on this niggling topic.

  4. widows and orphans aren’t usually discussed much and thanks to this article, it all makes perfect sense now. Thanks, James!

    Software Maniac (Seattle)

  5. While I think this is a good article, a short last line is very definitely not called a widow or an orphan. The fact is that there simply isn’t an agreed-upon term. It makes no sense to grab a word like widow or orphan (each of which have very specific meanings, focusing on a single line at the end or beginning of a column) and shove it into a different usage.

    This was the trouble I had in 1991 when working on the Desktop Publishers Survival Kit. Unwilling to force widow or orphan into inappropriate servitude, I came up with a different term: runt. The last, unacceptably short line of a paragraph is a runt. Since 1991, a number of other people have taken up the word, and it seems to be gaining a little more traction each year.

    Jim: Join us! Join us! 😉

  6. Teacup Software’s TypeFitter Pro is designed to automatically fix widows (aka runts), as well as address the problem where the keeps setting creates a hole at the bottom of the column. It does it all automatically, and it does a pretty good job.

    Adjusting tracking doesn’t look nearly as nice as fiddling with the H&J settings, which does the same job without having as visible an effect on your type. TF Pro focuses on those settings, instead of tracking (though it can hit tracking too).

  7. I loved this article. I thought I was the only one left that worried about these things. (I started my “career” setting type on a Linotype Model 31 in 1970.
    My only critique on the article was the very bad line ending in the fifth-to-the-last paragraph where you mentioned tightening tracking to (-7/1000 em) … the “(-” were on one line and “7/1000 em)” on the next. Wow, what a bad break in a story about bad breaks!

  8. The sample text in question comes from my book, “The Complete Manual of Typography.” For the illustration, I reset the type specs for good legibility on the web and then went looking for widows and orphans. I didn’t have to look far. I did nothing with the text or the type specs to induce any widows or orphans; they appeared on their own.
    The same goes for the bad line break cited by one of you. HTML cannot control these unfortunate events, and line breaks in web pages are typically determined by the display settings of the computer you read your web pages on.

  9. jQuery to The Rescue?


    Head Mangler

    I’m a million different people

  10. Where I live in England, we have a local newspaper that in every edition you would run out of fingers and toes counting the widows and orphans. Along with paragraphs ending in hyphenated words, and words hyphenated at just two letters.

    They have sacked their typesetters and their proofreaders, the reporters now have a template that they have to fill with their stories, that is automatically inserted into a page. This results in stories, not making sense as there is not enough room, or waffle, to fill the space, and as there is no proof reader; typographical, factual and grammatical errors.

    The result is enough to make anyone who takes an interest in typography cringe. I wonder at time if the editor is really interested in the quality of the newspaper, or just the revenue the excessive amount of advertising carried, brings in.

    To name and shame this newspaper, it is called the Southport Visiter. Yes! They could not even spell their name correctly.

  11. I’d also like to point out how much worse this widow/orphan/runt can be in text larded with subtitles. Inevitably, a sub will end up near enough to the bottom of a column to leave a huge hole when it’s forced up. Simple tracking can get pretty extreme in service to repairing text with subtitles. Usually no choice but to fudge the bottom margins across the columns or rewrite the text.

  12. HOW GOOD IT IS! An excellent article on type set with today’s great digital software. At 75, I was in typesetting when it was done on those beautiful Morgenthaler Linotypes. I was also a UPI editor in TTS, short for TeleTypeSetter. There were four ‘punchers’ assigned to me or whoever was editing the all-caps copy usually found on ordinary teletype machines into upper and lower case copy. That was in the Atlanta bureau where we had twenty minutes or so of ‘punching’ and then ten or so on a ‘split’ where the coded holes were sent to newspaper clients throughout the Southeast where they were fed in to “modernized” linotypes.

    Those were the days. We had no opportunity to correct for orphans or widows, of course, but if you were lucky enough to watch an experienced operator he would stop every now and then and re-set a lead line by hand-work on spacers that were dropped into the mold created for each line-of-type.

    As I understood it, in that day and age, the ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’ were named as designated by whether they were lines “left behind” by text type that went on to the next page or “ran away” from the body of type as short lines or one-or-two lines that moved ahead to the top of the next page.

    I think it was widows who were ‘left behind’ and orphans that ‘ran away’ to the next page. As I recall, however, it wasn’t difficult in hot type to fix the problem as noted above by recasting a line or two.

    My first experience with digital setting was Ventura Publisher which was a very sophisticated program that was ruined by Corel when purchased because it got away from the fundamentals Ventura built in to take care of the classic problems of hot type setting. I was a beta tester for Corel when it put out its first edition and wasn’t the only one who complained mightily to management about the loss of magnificent coding that enabled users who needed or wanted to do very good typesetting jobs with the flexibility that was soon lost.

    James Felici has written another fine piece here and it freshens my appreciation of InDesign that enables us to do just about anything — and in color! Imagine that.

  13. If adjusting H&J settings doesn’t solve the problem, I’d suggest using horizontal scaling rather than tracking. Tighter tracking causes darker color. Scaling sections of text type to 99% or 98% or even 97% won’t be noticed but will accomplish the same goal as tightening tracking.

    Gunnar Swanson

  14. Often a tiny amount of Horizontal Scaling (98% or 102%) of the entire paragraph will pull the widow up or add a word or two to the last line. The color of the paragraph doesn’t seem to be affected as much as tracking causes. Adding a -1 amount of tracking can help the scaling out, also, if need be.

  15. “…do your charitable work on behalf of these poor dears after all text editing has been completed.” : ) Lovely article, very helpful, thanks.

  16. The information I seek is to find how to stop the header from automatically forming a random size by centering the orphan(or widow) in the center of the last page of a chapter (before a page break) and thus disrupting the look of the contents

  17. Wow thanks for that very helpful article with great examples

    (From Sydney, Australia)

  18. Robert Bringhurst’s (leading authority) “The Elements of Typographic Style,” pages 42 (bottom) to top of page 44: Widow–Last line of paragraph alone at the top of a page or column. It has a past hence the name “Widow.” Orphan–Has a future, hence the name. The first line of the paragraph alone. Its paragraph is in the next column or top of next page. Runt. Less than 7 letters in a line. Obviously, a runt will be at the end of a paragraph. So, a widow can also be a runt. Widow has a past and orphan has a future. This has gotten so messed up and seems to be so very confusing when it does not need to be.

  19. …except that widows and orphans refer to lines and not words. A widow can be a complete line at the top of a column. Confused by so many people saying so many different things, I sought the expert, Robert Bringhurst. In Elements of Typographic Style, explains it exquisitely. Page 43, last paragraph:

    “The typographic terminology is telling. Isolated lines created when paragraphs begin on the last line of a page are known as orphans. They have no past, but they do have a future, and they need not trouble the typographer. The stub-ends left when paragraphs end on the first line of a page are called widows. …when paragraphs end on the first line of a page are called widows. They have a past but no future, and they look forshortened and forlorn. It is the custom—in most, if not in all, that world’s typographic cultures to give them an additional line.”

    Note, the stub ends can be an entire line. Therefore, a short-word line at the end of a paragraph does not a widow make. It is merely a short word at the end of a paragraph. It is not a line at the top of a column or page.

    Bringhurst explains that short lines should be avoided. Page 42. …words on a line less than four letters.”

    It boils down to something pretty basic: Line alone at the top: widow (has a past). Line alone at the bottom: orphan (has a future). Less than four letters on a line: runted line. 

    A runted line can also be a widow, which I think has caused all the confusion.

    Here is more information to support all this

  20. <3 Thanks a lot. This article is very helpful for me.

  21. I have a question that I simply cannot seem to get anywhere else so I hope someone can help me here.

    How do you solve the problem of widows, orphans and hyphens in electronic publishing? When I say electronic publishing I mean websites and electronic newsletters, especially the latter.

    I ask this because I work in the electronic publishing industry where we try to solve the problem of widows, orphans and hyphens in our electronic newsletters – yes, those things that arrive in your email inbox.

    Thank you very much.

    • David Blatner

      July 22, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Mary, that’s an extremely difficult problem. HTML — and HTML email in particular — doesn’t really have a reliable way of handling that. This is one reason many companies send out PDFs or some other format that does support page-perfect typography.

  22. Thank you very much for the advice on eliminating widows and orphans in InDesign. I work for a weekly newspaper and we’ve got these issues daily! Thanks to you, I now know that a permanent setting in a paragraph style sheet will NOT eliminate widows or orphans from occurring. My internet search has finally ended for this issue!
    Thanks again from Sanibel, FL

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