In typesetting terms, “widows” and “orphans” are lines at the end or beginning of a paragraph that are separated from the rest of the paragraph by a page break. If you think widows and orphans in your Word document are distracting, you can enable a setting that prevents them.

So, which is which? A widow is the last line of a paragraph that appears by itself on the following page and an orphan is the first line of a paragraph that appears by itself at the bottom of a page. You may see some disagreement online about these definitions, but the Chicago Manual of Style uses these definitions. Widows and orphans also occur at the ends and beginnings of columns, as well as pages.

If you have trouble remembering, think of it this way: “An orphan is alone from the beginning; a widow is alone at the end”. Orphaned lines appear at the “birth” (start) of paragraphs and widowed lines appear at the “death” (end) of paragraphs.

To control widows and orphans in Word, open your document and place the cursor in the paragraph with the widow or orphan. Make sure the “Home” tab is active and click the “Paragraph Settings” button in the lower-right corner of the Paragraph section.

On the Paragraph dialog box, click the “Line and Page Breaks” tab.

Under Pagination, check the ‘Widow/Orphan control” box and then click “OK”.

In the case of an orphan, like in our example at the beginning of this article, the single first line of the paragraph moves to the next page to be joined with the rest of the paragraph. If the paragraph had a widow, the whole rest of the paragraph is moved to the next page to rejoin the last line.

Widow and orphan control is applied separately for each paragraph. You cannot control only the widow or only the orphan for a paragraph. When you turn on widow and orphan control for a paragraph, neither widows nor orphans will occur for that paragraph when the document repaginates. You could turn on this setting in your paragraph styles in a Word template so you don’t have to worry about applying it manually.

Using widow and orphan control can frequently cause extra blank lines to appear at the bottom of a page or column. This is normal because lines have to be moved to get rid of the widow or orphan. Whether you enable the widow/orphan control setting or not is a matter of which one bothers you most, widows and orphans or the blank lines. Or, maybe you’re following a style guide that mandates no widows and orphans. Widows and orphans can be distracting, but widows can be more so because they are at the end of a paragraph, and the last line of a paragraph can be any length, even a single word. So, you could end up with one word on a line by itself at the beginning of a page.

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Lori Kaufman is a technology expert with 25 years of experience. She's been a senior technical writer, worked as a programmer, and has even run her own multi-location business.
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