• Raphaël Freeman

Widows and Orphans: Some of the Most Common Typesetting No Nos

Here is our list of the most common typesetting no nos and misconceptions, what they are, and how to avoid or fix them.

Quotation marks

Despite the fact that Microsoft Word can automatically convert straight quotes into smart quotes there are still two typographic problems that attention needs to be paid to: The first, the direction of the quote mark and the second, kerning.

Generally speaking, when the quote marks are indeed quote marks, then the direction is usually correct, however, when the quote mark is not a quote mark, i.e. when it’s an apostrophe, then we have to be careful.

As we know, the apostrophe can mean two things, (a) possessive – “Raphaël’s computer”, and (b) missing text. So instead of writing “the 1990s” we might write “the ’90s” – note how the apostrophe needs to look like the closed quote mark.

The second problem is that if the word is in italics (for example with a foreign word) then the typesetter will have to kern between the italic ‘l’ and the roman apostrophe: Raphaël’s.

The straight quotes are often used for feet and inches or hours and minutes. However, really the prime and double prime should be used for this. Unfortunately most fonts don’t include primes so using the dumb quotes with a slight skew can work quite well for this purpose.

Another use for the open and closed quotes are used to indicate the ayin and alef respectively in words transliterated from Hebrew, i.e. ‘ = ayin and ’ = alef, however, it’s usually better to use a half circle, thus ʿ and ʾ. This works well with Arabic too.


Today where email and webpages are so much part of our lives, we are used to seeing paragraphs separated with a full line space and that each paragraph begins with no indent – also known as a blunt beginning. Most of the blog posts on this site are done like this.

This phenomenon is by no means new. Jan Tschichold complained about business schools teaching typing in this way in an essay he wrote in 1950! Whereas in a business letter, an email, or a blog post, putting a line space in between each paragraph can be the preferred method, in book typography this is simply wrong. It is both inefficient in terms of space, but most importantly, ambiguous when a new page starts with a new paragraph – a problem that of course doesn’t exist on the web or email where there are no new pages.

In book typesetting, a new paragraph should have its first line indented, also known as an indented paragraph (really only the first line is indented). The typical amount of space to indent would be an em, but there are different ways of measuring this. A favorite is to draw a box from the bottom of the baseline of the text to the top of the x-height of the line below and use that as the indent.

Of course an exception to this rule is after a heading. The reader knows that after a heading there will be a new paragraph and thus it would be obnoxious to mark the new paragraph with an indent and thus is should be left as a blunt beginning.

Another exception is when the paragraph following an extract is not a new paragraph but rather a continuation of the paragraph before the extracted text (see the next paragraph for an example). Another distinction not visible to the reader with spaced blunt paragraphs.

Widows and Orphans

Interestingly, there seems to be two definitions of widows and orphans. This is the definition that is accepted:

A widow is the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page or column.

An orphan is the first line of a paragraph at bottom of a page or column.

This is how both Tschichold in his book, “The Form of the Book” and Robert Bringhurst in “Elements of Typographic Style” define these terms.

There is also another term worth mentioning, the runt which is a very short word at the end of a paragraph. It’s not normally necessary to worry about runts unless it is so short that it less than the first line indent of the next paragraph.

Now that the terms are defined, what is the rule? Again, following the rules and experience of the typographic masters mentioned above, we want to avoid widows at all costs it order to maintain the rectangle of the page. Some publishers allow a widow if there is more than half a line, but this shows a lack of understanding of the aesthetic of the page. On the other hand, an orphan is fine. The exception is when there is vertical line space, such as after an extract or list, before the indented orphaned paragraph. In this case it is preferable to avoid an orphan so as to avoid the ambiguity between an extract and a regular paragraph.feathercarding


There is little debate as to the use of the hyphen between typesetters and editors. There is also full agreement of the use of the en-dash when the meaning is to or through e.g. 1st–5th March. However, when the dash indicates a short break in the sentence then the disagreement starts. Let’s put aside that if this could be solved with a comma, then why is a dash being used in the first place – we’ll let the editors fight that out, but when a dash is being used then what should it look like?

Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) prescribes the use of an em-dash with no spaces around the dash. However, to quote Tschichold, “This is far too much length and invariably spoils any cultivated type area.” The preferred solution is to use spaced en-dashes which is what all typography manuals prescribe. This of course contradicts CMS but then again, are we going to take typographic style advice from a tomb set in Times New Roman?

If you have a manuscript that needs to typesetting without widows, then contact us for a no-obligation discussion.

Looking forward to your comments below!

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