widow and orphan controlYour call

Pic­ture a para­graph that starts at the bot­tom of one page and con­tin­ues at the top of the next. When only the last line of the para­graph ap­pears at the top of the sec­ond page, that line is called a widow. When only the first line of the para­graph ap­pears at the bot­tom of the first page, that line is called an or­phan.

Widow and or­phan con­trol pre­vents both. Or­phans are moved to the next page with the rest of the para­graph. To cure wid­ows, lines are moved from the bot­tom of one page to the top of the next. It’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than it sounds, be­cause cur­ing a widow can­not cre­ate a new or­phan, nor vice versa.

Be aware that if you use widow and or­phan con­trol, you will fre­quently see blank lines at the bot­tom of your pages. This is nor­mal, since lines must be trans­planted to cure the problem.

Widow and or­phan con­trol in a word proces­sor is all-or-noth­ing. You can’t con­trol wid­ows and or­phans sep­a­rately, even though wid­ows are more dis­tract­ing. Why? Or­phans ap­pear at the be­gin­ning of a para­graph, so they’re at least a full line. But wid­ows can be any length, even a sin­gle word, be­cause they ap­pear at the end of a paragraph.

Do you need widow and or­phan con­trol? Try it. See how it looks. In my own work, I ap­proach widow and or­phan con­trol the same way I ap­proach lig­a­tures—I only use it if wid­ows and or­phans are caus­ing a vis­i­ble prob­lem. Oth­er­wise, I find that the blank lines at the bot­tom of the page are more an­noy­ing than the wid­ows and orphans.

How to turn on widow & orphan control

WordRight-click in the text and se­lect ParagraphLine and Page Breaks → check Widow / Orphan control

PagesViewShow Toolbar (or op­tion + ⌘ + t) → Format but­ton → More pane → check Prevent widow & orphan lines

CSSNot applicable

by the way
  • You can also cure iso­lated wid­ows and or­phans with some ju­di­cious edit­ing. But don’t use a hard line break or car­riage re­turn.

  • Wid­ows & or­phans aren’t typ­i­cally an is­sue on the web, be­cause web con­tent doesn’t nat­u­rally span mul­ti­ple pages. Browsers, how­ever, are happy to put a small word alone on the last line of a para­graph, which al­ways looks bad. You can fix this with a non­break­ing space and a lit­tle clever programming.

  • Here in the 21st cen­tury, the widow and or­phan ter­mi­nol­ogy lands on the ques­tion­able side of quaint. I fa­vor coin­ing a new term for this ty­po­graphic con­di­tion. One word should suf­fice—it’s the same prob­lem, just at dif­fer­ent edges of the page. Maybe strag­glers and thus strag­gler con­trol? Nom­i­na­tions welcome.

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