What Are Widows & Orphans in a Word Document?

By Lily Medina

In a Microsoft Word document, widows and orphans refer to single lines at the tops and bottoms of pages. A stranded line looks unprofessional and it makes it difficult for readers to follow the flow of the awkwardly segmented paragraph. Because it's hard to avoid or fix widows and orphans manually, Microsoft Word offers an automatic widow/orphan control option.

Widows Versus Orphans

A single line at the top of the page is termed a widow. This happens when the last paragraph on the previous page has one too many lines to fit on that previous page; the very last line spills over onto the new page. An orphan, however, is a single line at the bottom of a page. This occurs when the page already has so much text that it can only fit one more line. The paragraph's first line appears on that page, and the second and subsequent lines fall on the following page.

How Word Controls Widows and Orphans

Microsoft Word's widow/orphan control option prevents widows and orphans by moving the page break slightly and grouping two lines together. When a widow occurs, it moves the page break up one line, causing the last two lines of the paragraph to fall onto the next page instead of just the last line. When an orphan occurs, the control option moves the paragraph's stranded first line to the next page. The entire paragraph stays together, and the previous page simply has one unnoticeable extra line of space at the bottom.

Turning Widow/Orphan Control On or Off

Click the "Page Layout" tab near the top of the screen. In the box marked "Paragraph," click the arrow in the bottom right corner. The Paragraph dialogue box launches. Click the "Line and Page Breaks" tab. Under the first heading, "Pagination," select or unselect the box by Widow/Orphan control. If you check the box, Word will automatically prevent widows and orphans. If you uncheck the box, Word will allow widows and orphans to occur. Click "OK" to save your changes.

Changing the Default

To make Microsoft Word control orphans and widows in every new document you create, set the widow/orphan control option as the default for your Normal template. In the "Paragraph" dialog box, click "Default..." at the bottom of the box. A message pops up and asks, "Do you want this change to affect all new documents based on the NORMAL template?" Click "Yes." To close the "Paragraph" dialog box, click "OK."