Rags, Widows & Orphans
by Ilene Strizver
Rags, widows and orphans – sounds more like a Dickens novel than type! In spite of their odd names, these concepts are important to understand if good typography is your goal.
In typography, “rag” refers to the irregular or uneven vertical margin of a block of type. Usually it’s the right margin that’s ragged (as in the commonly seen flush left/rag right setting), but either or both margins can be ragged.
When setting type with a ragged margin, pay attention to the shape that the ragged line endings make. A good rag goes in and out from line to line in small increments. A poor rag creates distracting shapes of white space in the margin. Don’t rely on the line breaks generated by your software application; get in the habit of spotting and correcting poor rags by making manual line breaks or by editing your copy. Slight adjustments in point size or column width might work as well.
Widows and Orphans
A widow is a very short line – usually one word, or the end of a hyphenated word – at the end of a paragraph or column. A widow is considered poor typography because it leaves too much white space between paragraphs or at the bottom of a page. This interrupts the reader’s eye and diminishes readability. Fix them by reworking the rag or editing the copy.
Like a widow, an orphan is a single word, part of a word or very short line, except it appears at the beginning of a column or a page. This results in poor horizontal alignment at the top of the column or page. The term “orphan” is not as commonly used as “widow,” but the concept is the same, and so is the solution: fix it!
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- Editor’s Note: Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 3rd edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.