Typography terms I avoid

I avoid using widow and orphan as typography terms.

In workshops settings, I haven’t clearly articulate this subtle discomfort in the past, instead saying something like: “here are the terms you might be familiar with—but we don’t really need to call them that.”

Today, I’d say that discomfort was because the language isn’t particularly inclusive.

On top of that, I’m not sure how useful these terms even are, especially on screens. The situation they are supposed to explain is not self-explanatory. To use them as memory devices, you need to know this whole story, and its negative connotation:

2.4.8 Never begin a page with the last line of a multi-line paragraph.

The typographic terminology is telling. Isolated lines created when paragraphs begin on the last line of a page are known as orphans. They have no past, but they do have a future, and they need not trouble the typographer. The stub-ends left when paragraphs enter on the first line of the page are called widows. They have a past but not a future, and they look foreshortened and forlorn. It is the custom – in most, if not in all, the world’s typographic cultures to give them an additional line for company. This rule is applied in close conjunction with the next.

—Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style: Version 4.0

Understandably, this is clearly and specifically about page layout, with type flowing from one page the next. That is even the next rule referenced: “Balance facing pages by moving single lines.”

In my experience, the term is applied inconsistently, and sometimes designers call a dangling word at the end of a paragraph an orphan anyway.

In typographic software libraries, developers might be familiar with this feature as “Widont” instead, popularized by Shaun Inman’s WordPress plugin from 15 years (!) ago.

The “Widont” term is abstracted, but I think it also shows the real value now is in the search-ability.

For me, the Bringhurst definition is the “correct,” one but with a mnemonic that is undesirable to keep using. Plus, it only applies to multi-column or multi-page layouts, which are much less common on screens. (There’s another catch with the term widow on the web specifically, which I’ll cover in my next message.)

On the web and other scrolling user interfaces, I think it could much more reasonably and simply be called a “trailing word.”

Here’s the thing:

Do we really need a memory device, if the term itself is simple enough?

Do these, or any other typography, terms bother you, too? Let me know!

Until next time,