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Anonymous's picture
Joined: 6 Mar 2002 - 1:06pm

When I say “widow” I am referring to the end word of a paragraph that sits alone as a single word line.

I have referred to Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” and have found no mention of this scenario. The closest reference would be 2.4.8 on pages 43 and 44. Here Bringhurst speaks of multi word widows and orphans. What he says makes sense.

But what about the widow I have mentioned. Is it style? Is it bad taste?

I have found several in “widows” of single words in Bringhurst’s book such as on pages 116, 103, and 165. In addition on page 180 of Richard Hendel’s “On Book Design” I found a total of three!

What seems right?

Kent Lew's picture
Joined: 21 Apr 2002 - 11:00am

In my experience, the single-word last line of a paragraph is generally less objectionable to most typographers than the traditional widowed line at the top of a page. BTW, I’ve encountered the terms “widow” and “orphan” used inconsistently when speaking of these different situations: a short line alone at the top a page, a single beginning line at the bottom of a page, and a short line at the end of a paragraph. But all deserve a typographer’s attention.

Actually, Bringhurst does address your question directly in §2.4.2:

Avoid leaving the stub-end of a hyphenated word, or any word shorter than four letters, as the last line of a paragraph.

But he doesn’t offer any additional explication.

What constitutes an unacceptably short last line of a paragraph is indeed often a matter of style. I know book designers with varying degrees of tolerance. Some designers I know will never accept a single word as the last line of a paragraph, but I think this is an impractical stance.

In my opinion, it depends upon the length of the final word, the line-length of the text, and the size of the indent. I will tolerate a single word, but I never accept a single-word last line which is shorter than the paragraph indent and usually prefer the word to be at least double the length of the indent. When possible, I prefer to see the last line of the paragraph be at least 20% of the line length. A shorter line length can accommodate a shorter last line. But that’s a loose rule and the (trained) eye is the best judge.

I will accept a single word because often the alternative is less desireable — overly loose lines to push a word or overly tight ones to take it up. I’d rather see a single-word last line than bad word-spacing (or, heaven forbid, letter-spacing).

— K.

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