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Orphans and Widows, Widows and Orphans

Posted on September 09, 2009 | Guest Contributors | Leave A Comment

Guest contributor Paul Barrett shares some good reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid to leave widows and orphans hanging.

In four years as a professional book designer, I spent more time eliminating the pesky little grotesqueries known as widows and orphans than I did anything else. Everyone I worked with, in-house and out, seemed to operate under the assumption that, aside from a bad break or a stack, nothing ruined a layout, and therefore a book, more thoroughly than a widow or an orphan.

For the uninitiated, a widow is any single word at the end of a paragraph set on its own line, or else the first line of a paragraph set at the very bottom of a page; an orphan is that same single word, or else a paragraph’s final line, set at the top of a page. Or at least that’s how I learned it in design school. For all their notoriety, there’s considerable ambiguity regarding the terms’ definitions.

The OED, for example, defines a widow as “A short line at the end of a paragraph, esp. one which is set at the top of a page or column, or which contains only (part of) one word, and is therefore considered unsightly,” and an orphan as “A word or line undesirably separated by a page break from the paragraph to which it belongs.” In other words, all orphans are widows but not all widows are orphans. Wikipedia, on the other hand, and, more importantly, The Chicago Manual of Style, defines my widow as an orphan and my orphan as a widow. This despite the familiar adage, “Orphans have no past, widows have no future,” which seems to support my definitions of the terms. I think.

In any case, I was not yet aware of this ambiguity when I scorned an editor at a major publishing house for marking on a proof, “Please fix orphan,” next to what I thought was a widow. As a laugh, I wrote, “HELLOOOOO! That’s a WIDOW!!!” underneath the request. My method of coping with copious edits, see, was usually to pepper proofs with sarcastic notes to the in-house editors. Since these proofs weren’t ever returned to the publisher, I jotted with impunity; on that same proof, re their note that a certain line was a bit tight, I wrote, “Well, your mom was a bit tight last night.” Long story short, those proofs somehow made it back to the publisher, who telephoned my boss shortly thereafter and assured her that what had been marked as an orphan was, in fact and indeed, an orphan. I was in turn scolded for insubordinate prurience, which, yeah, fine, but dude. Widow.

However you identify them, though, I’d venture to say that the only people who are truly bothered by widows and orphans are graphic designers and copyeditors. When I notice one while reading for pleasure, I’m only really bothered on principle. What I find much more distracting is when a typesetter, editor, publisher, designer, whoever, attempts to eliminate a widow or orphan with adjusted letterspacing. Because in this case, the distraction is sustained; it’s paragraph-wide. But widows are unsightly, we’re told. They’re antithetical to a good layout. They’re the design equivalent of an afraid-of-heights fly. I mean, my editors would have me cut words if necessary, just to fix a widow. (This seemed sacrilege, changing the author’s text for the sake of appearance, until I learned that most of our authors couldn’t actually write. At which point I started taking considerable liberties with the copy, sans editorial approval, in order to spit-polish my layouts. This is a fairly soul-sucking way of going about things, FYI, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.)

What I would recommend, though, is a general and massive easing-up on widows and orphans. Leave them be! They aren’t as categorically unsightly as everyone claims, and they certainly aren’t as distracting as an entire paragraph of stretched or squished letterspacing. Nor are they worth changing an author’s words over. In any case, as more and more text moves to the screen, widows will become increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to control. Which means they’ll become more prevalent, and with ubiquity comes acceptance. (Orphans, on the other hand, will disappear along with page breaks.) Granted, I’m not saying widows or orphans are desirable; I’d still write off any designer who left one on a wedding invitation. All I’m saying is, it’s time we found a new pariah.

And in the meantime, maybe we can agree upon which is which.

Paul Barrett, formerly a graphic designer in Seattle, is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at St. Mary’s College of California. Read stories and essays on his website www.paulbarrett.net.

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