Widows and orphans

Did you know that widows and orphans can really mess up the look of your document. No they’re not leaving tears or dirty fingerprints on your pages, but they can often make your reader stumble as they pace through your carefully honed writing.

OK. So what’s this all about you ask?

First, let’s define widow and orphan in the context of your document:

A widowed line is a word or line of text from, for example, a paragraph, list, table, heading, or caption that extends to the top of the next page.

An orphaned line is a word, a line of text, a heading, or a caption at the bottom of a page while the remainder of the text unit continues on the next page.

English: Example of widowed line (highli...

Example of a widowed line.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Correct pagination requires that you eliminate widowed and orphaned lines.

Here are a few guidelines to ensure proper page breaks:

  • When a paragraph is split across two pages, ensure that at least two lines exist at the bottom and top of the consecutive pages.
  • Do not break a list across pages so that the introductory sentence (or paragraph) is at the bottom of one page and the list items are at the top of the next page.
  • To break a table across two pages, ensure that at least two rows (not including the header row) of the body of the table remain together at the bottom or top of the page.
  • Do not leave the caption for a table or figure widowed or orphaned.

Most word processing applications provide an option to specify that at least two lines must remain together at the top or bottom of a page. For example, here’s how you set the option in Word 2007.

1. On the Page Layout tab, open the Paragraph dialog box.

2. Switch to the Line and Page Breaks tab.

3. Select the Widow/Orphan control check box, as shown.


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About The writer, the reviser, the visualizer

Writer, reviser, visualizer (I edit, write, learn, read, and paint--not necessarily in that order) “J. is an excellent and thorough editor. She responds promptly to all concerns and provides excellent feedback.” --LinkedIn Recommendation View all posts by The writer, the reviser, the visualizer

3 responses to “Widows and orphans

  • lynnemelcombe

    I always have trouble remembering which is which, so I came up with a mnemomic: orphans are children, so they’re the ones who hang out alone at the bottom of things, while widows are adults, so they hang out alone at the top of things. Or maybe that only makes sense in my head.

  • Looking Out The Window

    Knew this single line stuff drove me crazy when I proof read for others, but learned lots here, the names for this and how to prevent it. Thanks for taking the time to educate us.

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