I recently watched a re-run of the 1970s American sitcom, The Odd Couple, in which Oscar, the untidy sports writer, was typing his newspaper column on an old manual typewriter (while in bed). This highlighted one of the great advantages that the word processor has over its manual predecessor: flowing text.

On a manual typewriter, for those who have never used one, each time the text approached the end of a line, a bell would ping to alert the typist, who would then physically push the entire carriage back to its starting position. These days we take it for granted that Word will automatically move the cursor onto the next line as we type, so spare a thought for typists of yore, who had to push their carriages back hundreds of times a day. Yet while the physical effort may have been removed from typing, the origin of many features of word processing that are still currently in use can be traced back to the early days of printing.

One of the first things a new desk top publishing student learns is the layout of a page and the rich terminology that goes with it. We may live in the computerised age, where manipulating text is as easy as, well, abc, but some of the terms we use have been with us for hundreds of years. For example, when typing in Microsoft Word, your keyboard has the facility to create em and en dashes, yet these characters have been in use since the 1700s.

Widow and orphan are two other terms that refer to the way text is positioned on the page. These are short passages at the start or end of a paragraph that have become separated from the main body of text. A widow appears when a paragraph ends with a single line of text at the head of the following page or column. An orphan is where a new paragraph begins with a single line of text at the foot of the page or column (a mnemonic for remembering which is which is that a widow is old, and appears at the end of a paragraph, and an orphan is young, appearing at the start).

These solitary lines of text have been frowned upon by printers for centuries, as they interrupt the flow for the reader and they give the document a disjointed look when printed. The usual way to remove an orphan is to force a page break and push the offending text onto the top of the following page. Removing a widow is a little more complicated because it involves pushing existing text back up. Printers would go to extreme lengths to avoid creating a widow, such as adjusting the margins or compressing the spacing between words, or even having the offending paragraph rewritten.

Fortunately Word has a feature that will deal with widows and orphans automatically. In Word 2007 select the Home tab of the ribbon and click the small icon at the bottom-right of the Paragraph group. In Word 2003, click on Format, and then select Paragraph. In the dialog box click on the Line and Page Breaks tab, and in the Pagination section, check the Widow/Orphan control box and click OK.

Word will now force page breaks to avoid creating widows and orphans. You can see how it deals with a widow by unchecking the Widow/Orphan control box and typing so that your paragraph ends with a single line of text at the head of the following page. Re-check the box and Word will automatically remove the widow.

There are many more features lurking behind those categories on the menu bar. Why not enrol on a course to find out just what they are?