Which Word Wednesday: Orphan vs. Widow

By June 26, 2013 language 4 Comments

widows-orphansYou may be wondering how in the world someone might mix up these two terms. In common, everyday usage, an orphan is a parentless child; a widow is a woman whose husband has died.

But these terms are also used in the editing world to describe less-than pleasant text layout. That’s where I get them muddled together. I have to look them up ever-y-time. The terms will not stick. So I’m bringing them to Which Word Wednesday in the hope of solving my confusion. Let’s look first to the New Oxford American Dictionary:

orphan :: noun
Printing, the first line of a paragraph set as the last line of a page or column, considered undesirable.

widow :: noun
Printing, a last word or short last line of a paragraph falling at the top of a page or column and considered undesirable.

Compare that to the entries found in Chicago Manual of Style:

orphan. A short line appearing at the bottom of a page, or a word or part of a word appearing on a line by itself at the end of a paragraph. Orphans can be avoided by changes in wording or spacing that either remove the line or lengthen it.1

widow. A short, paragraph-ending line appearing at the top of a page. Widows should be avoided when possible by changes in wording or spacing that either remove the line or lengthen it.2

orphan example

Visual #1

See why I’m confused? Those two sets of definitions do not match. At all. And I can’t remember which definition goes with which source. It’s all jumbled in my brain. My solution has been to refer to unsightly spacing as an “orphan/widow.” I figure the editing team can determine which thing I’m talking about by the context.

But today is the day. I’m adopting the entries from Chicago Manual as my own. Now, I just need some memory hooks. Talk this out with me:

Both orphans and widows consist of single words or very short phrases that appear alone on a new line of text and appear stranded and lonely in the copy layout.

Orphans may appear at the end of a paragraph (the final words of a sentence) or at the end of a page (the first words of a new sentence). Widows appear at the end of a paragraph that trails to a new page of copy.

widow example

Visual #2

(Note: Many print houses actually prefer end-of-page orphans and widows because it may spur people to read on to discover the end of the sentence.)

How about this for a hook? Orphans are left hanging. Widows strike out on their own.

What’s my WWW verdict? In life and in printing, we need to take care of our widows and orphans.

What’s your verdict? Do you know your orphans from your widows? Has your reading ever been impeded by jagged text layout? Do share in the comments.


www2013Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.
1. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2003. Print. p. 833.

2. Ibid., 839.

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