24 October 2014

…when is a widow not a widow?

When I was little my concept of flux was anchored to an outlook of completion. I'd see roads being fixed, houses wrapped in scaffolding, bridges being built, and all I could wonder was when are they going to finish the world? When is all this stuff going to be done? But that was flipping ages ago. I know as well as you know that nothing stays the same for long and transience rules. However, some things don't change, and for good reason. We all manage to drive here in the UK on the left hand side of the road okay, and know that a white horizontal line through a red circle means 'don't go there!'. If the rules weren't in place then it would be nothing but Cannonball Run on the roads, with Burt Reynolds.

Apologies in advance if your search engine has brought you here looking for Burt Reynolds. There's nothing to see here.

Whether you like rules or not, we can all agree to differ that rules make order out of chaos. I like rules. Rules allow me to know where I am. If I'm riding on a designated cycle path and a pedestrian tells me off, I can happily rebuff their remark with a 'sorry, you're wrong there' as I pedal onwards. If I want to cancel a subscription to an overrated TV-on-demand service and I get the old never ending direct debit trick, I can call them on it. If I want to refer to one word sitting on its own at the end of a paragraph a widow, I know I'd be wrong. Because that's not a widow. Or is it? Oh dear.

It all started when I was reading Murakami's 1Q84 Book III and a rogue line of text particularly caught my eye. The word 'Lips' sat all on its own at the end of chapter 13. I opened a debate in the studio over what everyone thought a widow constituted. For me, a widow is a line of text at the end of a paragraph left on its own at the start of a page or column of text. Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style has always been there to back this up, with the handy mnemonic 'widows have a past but not a future' (a bit archaic, yes, but I catch his drift). The studio was unsurprisingly split on the matter. Popular parlance, it would appear after researching the topic, would lead me to believe that many refer to the one sad, lonely word as a widow. But it's still a mixed bag of opinion. In some cases what some call a widow, others call an orphan and vice versa. Why has this issue become so unclear? Is it a 'my understanding is better than your understanding' pissing match in the same vein as the tiresome old classic Noah Webster's American English Vs Samuel Johnson's English English? (Ultimately, they're both right, right?). Maybe. But I find it a little odd to accept that when dealing with typesetting and proofing, the lines are blurred at all.

Before you have a game of pool it's wise to know the house rules to which you and your opponent are playing; after accidentally sinking the white do you take the free shot from anywhere on the table, off the line or from behind the line down the baise? But to ask "hey guys, before I get started setting this 200 page document, is a widow this or that when it comes to you marking up the corrections?" would be both weird and a fundamentally troublesome. In fact, I stumbled upon this guide by Bulldog Press where they do indeed quite clearly outline their set of definitions. Applaudable, but in the long run, cumbersome. Furthermore, they throw another term into the mix - 'runt' - which I only recently discovered myself on an Adobe InDesign forum thread whilst researching widows.

When the plot starts to thicken, you need some trustworthy opinions to help make sense of it. So I turned to my former typography tutor David Jury to ask for his take on the matter. A knowledgable source whose excellent book About Face I've been returning to over the years for typographical solace.

"I was hoping to come up with a really definitive reference but I'm surprised at how difficult it turned out to be." David replied, and instantly put my mind both at rest - that I'm not alone and going mad, and to work - that it isn't as simple a matter of this-or-that.

David said "Widows and orphans... these are the same thing in the sense that both are used to describe a single word or small number of words on a line of its own at the end of a paragraph. The term 'orphan' however is used to describe that same word when, it is not only on the last line of a paragraph by itself, but when that line is at the top of a new page."

So the single word alone is a widow! I was wrong all along! We're done. Good work, we can all go home now...

"However, the use of these terms has become chaotic. Not only have the two terms sometimes switched function I now see that the first line of a new paragraph that happens to be the last line on a page is also called an orphan. This is entirely new to me." David continued. "I began to wonder if I had always had these two terms wrong but my description is (or was) correct although now clearly a little archaic."

I wasn't so sure if David's understanding is archaic, as he puts it, because there's no definitive answer to which term is old, which is new, which is good, which is bad. Interestingly, though, David adds a clue to the dating of these two nomenclatures. "I looked at some older printer's manuals and widows and orphans are not even mentioned, so I guess these are relatively new terms anyway - something I didn't know."

If David's confused, I'm confused.

"My first thought concerning the blurring of its meaning was that the internet was to blame... people too quick to make public statements without checking their facts, but Bringhurst scuppered that theory."

Although Bringhurst does put a stake in the ground for what he teaches as a correct, I'm leaning towards David's first theory: that the internet is an excellent knee-jerk soapbox for expressing opinion.

Blogs have certainly altered the online landscape and the way people read and trust information. If Arianna Huffington can start a commentary blog then the next person certainly can, will and has (except theirs probably hasn't become one of the biggest online news resources called The Huffington Post). The clamour to be the first flag in the ground with a claim - no matter how spurious - can be irresistible, and if you own a blog, then why not? It feels good to be right. To win. But just the act of posting what you believe to be fact doesn't make it so.

When print was a long, expensive, manual affair, it would be in everyone's interest - from author to publisher to reader - to make sure you had the facts right before the words were set and the presses run. Plus, you wouldn't want to be called on your errors by your peers. So you took care. Now that cache which print brought with it has transferred online, but minus the care. The speed in which information can be stated can likewise be erased, so with all best intentions, playing fast and loose with facts - Wikipedia style - is no biggie.

Regardless of the whys and whens (that's a lengthier investigation for another time) without driving the fact-finding bus into piousness, I still wanted a definitive what. And if someone is the definition of being definitive it's definitely Erik Speikermann. So I asked him the big question outlining my understanding. Recap: a widow is a line of text at the end of a paragraph which appears alone at the start of a page. An orphan is the first line of a paragraph appearing alone at the end of a page.

"That would be exactly my definition." Erik replied, also casually throwing in this little nugget "In German, we call them Hurenkind (whore's child) for widow and Schusterjunge (cobbler's boy) for orphan. Go figure."

He also passed on a link to an article by Jennifer Kyrnin, dealing with widows and orphans online, further bolstering his answer.

Definitive!

Or is it?

Turning to another type cognoscente in the field, Phil Baines, in his and Andrew Haslam's Type and Typography, it's stated that a widow as one word on its own at the end of a paragraph. As an arbiter of scintillating popular party conversation I raised this with my brother James at my dad's 75th birthday. With a classically trained graphic design background and as a contemporary of Baines, it came of little surprise that James also thought that to be the case and pointed me towards one of his many resources: Type Matters by Jim Williams. In this book a widow is: "a single word, a very short line of text or the tail of a hyphenated word at the end of a paragraph." It also outlines further good type practices by which to abide when it comes to these pesky little stub ends and is all very good common sense, really. Responsibly typesetting so that readability comes first and individual words become invisible to the reader is hardwired in any decent graphic designer who will adjust their layouts accordingly. But interestingly, the issue of leaving one word alone at the end of a paragraph  isn't considered the offence equivalent to calling their nan a witch that some designers would have you believe. Rather, it should merely be avoided according to Bringhurst and Baines. Furthermore, my dad's birthday cake was delicious.

I'd like to shut the case on all this, but the fact that designers, type setters, writers, typographers, font jockeys and kern-nerds alike have such similar yet varying views makes me want to find one rule to, erm, rule them all. So, dear reader, what do YOU think?

I'm no scientist, but I know when testing theories, wider samples result in more accurate and tempered results, so I've created a survey to see if a general consensus emerges regarding the semantics of widows. There may be a chance that results get skewed from what you've already read here, but it's not like I've got a white lab coat on. Which is a shame. It's a strong look.

You can find the survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/8NT3L8H

Take the survey

Please get involved and share it with others. I'll be sticking the results up on this blog at some point.

At the front of this piece I cited the importance of using rules to aid road safety. In the grand scheme of things maybe my quest for the elucidation of terminology is not that important. An issue without an issue. You say tomayto, I say tomarto. Nobody is going to get knocked off their bike for referring to one word at the end of a paragraph as a widow. But you never know. Without proper guidance, one day YOU may collide with a creative director. I certainly won't be taking any responsibility when you file the claim.