Fix Widows and Orphans in Text

Fix dangling words for better typography and design

How to fix a widow in typesetting

Maat / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

When setting type and doing page layout, the graphic designer or typesetter arranges the type on the page for the best balance and clarity. When the page contains a lot of text — especially when set in short line lengths — occasionally the type breaks awkwardly from one column or page to the next, leaving a single word or a single line of type separated from the rest of the paragraph.

These occurrences are called widows and orphans. These widowed and orphaned bits of text make stories harder to read and cause page layouts to look unbalanced. Here's how to work around this problem to benefit the design.

What Are Widows and Orphans

Widows occur when the last line of a paragraph flows so that it stands alone in a different column or page from the rest of the paragraph.

Orphans occur when the first line of a paragraph is separated from the rest of the paragraph, which appears in a different column or on a different page.

Examples of Widows and Orphans

Here's what widows and orphans look like in text:

  • A word or two at the top of a column that belongs with the paragraph at the bottom of the previous column.
  • The first line of a paragraph that falls at the bottom of a column. When the rest of the sentence continues on the next page, the reader loses continuity.
  • Subheads that appear at the bottom of a column or end of a page without at least two to three lines of the following text.

How to Fix a Widow or Orphan

When you flow the text in your page layout design, you may notice a few widows and orphans. In modern page layout software, there are several options to format the text to prevent this problem. 

  1. Edit the text. Rewriting or editing can solve many problems including widows and orphans. If you have the authority to make editorial changes, delete dangling words by editing out a word or two or use a longer or shorter word somewhere in the paragraph.

  2. Use software controls. Some software programs have automatic controls that prevent widows and orphans. These controls keep subheads and paragraphs together or keep at least the first and last two or three lines of each paragraph on the same page. This type of control adds extra space at the beginning or end of a page or paragraph, which forces text that might otherwise split to stay together on a page. You can specify how many lines must stay together.

  3. Change the hyphenation settings. Control line endings on all lines as well as widows and orphans by making the hyphenation zone larger or smaller. This forces fewer or more words to hyphenate. Manually hyphenating some lines can also force changes that eliminate some widows and orphans without changing entire sections of a document.

  4. Change the spacing. Use tracking and kerning to change line endings. Apply changes globally throughout the document or only in certain areas. Loosening or tightening the spacing on one line or one word can be enough to force a change.

Know When to Stop

Watch out for the domino effect when tweaking type to eliminate widows and orphans. When making changes in tracking or spacing, start at the beginning of the document. Make changes in small increments. Any changes you make at the start of the document affects text further along and may create new line-ending problems.

Don't rely on the software to recognize and correctly fix every dangling word or phrase. Experiment with different settings to get the best overall line endings, then fix the remaining problems individually. Proofread after every change.

Don't lose sight of the big picture. What seems like a few simple line adjustments in a single paragraph can appear different when you look at the paragraph alongside the other unadjusted text. You can do a small amount of squeezing on a single word. If you need to do a lot of squeezing, spread it out over an entire paragraph.

Make sure that the measures you take to eliminate the widows and orphans aren't worse than your original problem. Correct the worst of your widows and orphans and let the marginal ones go.