My teacher said that, technically, an orphan have at least 3 characters or less at the end of a paragraph or column. But mostly on every site about design and type I always find that an orphan is just a word even if it have more than 3 characters.

Which is right? Technically in most conservative way, defined by some great designer in the history.

To make it clear. It's correct instead of having an orphan paragraph:

orphan paragraph

Making this to avoid? My teacher said that isn't technically an orphan word because it have more than 3 letters

My teacher said that isn't technically an orphan word because it have more than 3 letters

  • I removed the word "widows" from your question title since, well, there's no reference to them in the question.
    – Scott
    Apr 26, 2018 at 22:09
  • 1
    There is a Wikipedia article about this here
    – Billy Kerr
    Apr 26, 2018 at 22:33

4 Answers 4


Orphan (paragraph line) - the first line of a paragraph that at the bottom of a column or page. The rest of the same paragraph is on the next column/page.

Orphan heading - a heading at the bottom of a column or page.

Widow (paragraph line) - a single-line continuation of a paragraph at the top of a column or page.

Widow (words/characters) - a word or few characters on the last line of a paragraph that is too short for visual comfort. A good estimate is 10% or less of the line-length. In a 80-character line-length, 8 characters can be a threshold. A 50-character line length-might be a minimum for books. So a benchmark of 5 characters is a good minimum. In addition, the last line should always be longer than the paragraph indent (first line indent).

If you work on tabloids/newspapers, 3 characters might be acceptable to you.

Also, it might be a bad habit to hyphenate the last word of any paragraph. Never hyphenate or justify your multiline headings too.

As in the real world, we don't argue about widows and orphans, we help fix them.

  • What you call “widow (words/characters)” (as seen in picture #2 in the question) is usually called a runt in my experience. I’ve never heard that referred to as a widow (or orphan, for that matter). Jul 15, 2021 at 8:35
  • I have never heard the word runt used in typography or graphic design. I will say, especially after poking around a bit, that the use of widow or orphan in the context of single words (aka runts) appears to be time-oriented. When I learned this stuff (hand typesetting in the early 80s), this was part of the definition and common in usage. It was also used this way in my typesetting class in my BFA Illustration program. It appears to have narrowed its definition over time. The wikipedia entry cites a few examples of "controversy surrounding usage" and those footnotes lead to books circa 1992.
    – Yorik
    Jul 15, 2021 at 16:16
  • Usage changes and evolves however
    – Yorik
    Jul 15, 2021 at 16:17

The only way to have "3 characters or less" of a single word is to break the word with a hyphen.

You shouldn't ever break a word via a hyphen leaving three end characters as an orphan. And a 3-letter word is a single word.

Ideally you set each paragraph correctly to avoid both orphans and set the page correctly to avoid widows. For example in your second image, you could easily insert a soft return in the paragraph containing the orphan... that would eliminate the orphan by causing additional words to fall to that line, while also avoiding the widow.

In my opinion, orphans and widows are not an "either or" choice. Both should be avoided when possible.

  • But my teacher is wrong? All class are setting type in a book and we all have orphans (with a word end) and even we make orphans to avoid orphan or widow paragraph line. We are all making it wrong?
    – RafaelFern
    Apr 26, 2018 at 22:10
  • "even we make orphans to avoid orphan or widow paragraph line" -- I don't understand that. You make orphans to avoid orphans?
    – Scott
    Apr 26, 2018 at 22:11
  • I edited the question to people understand it better.
    – RafaelFern
    Apr 26, 2018 at 23:11
  • “An orphan is a single word” — This is not my understanding of orphans (or widows). They both refer to lines ending up in the wrong column, not words. In the second image in the question, there is no orphan or widow anywhere – there is only the highlighted runt. I’m guessing the comment about making orphans to avoid orphans was actually meant to say that they’re creating runts in order to avoid orphans/widows. Jul 15, 2021 at 8:32

For better reader flow and paragraph aesthetics, any single word is best to be avoided. A nice, easy, and scalable method to avoid widows or orphans is to use a grep style. Set a character style to non-breaking and apply it in a paragraph style using .{15}$

This will apply a non-breaking space to the last 15 characters in a paragraph. You could change the 15 to a 3 if you really only wanted to attack 3 letter words.

(Using soft returns can cause issues if you edit text or resize text boxes).


Orphan and widows are related to next column or next page, not next paragraph. I guess your teacher is talking about how many characters you can leave as a new line at the end of a paragraph to correct the incorrect short lines. I think an end line with less than 15/20 characters could be avoided making a -3/5 % tracking which is a visually imperceptible text transformation.


Paragraph end line of text at the beginning of the next column or page.


Paragraph end line of text at the end of the previous column or page.

enter image description here

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