Very often you can find solutions by changing the penalty. One is widowpenalty. However what are penalties and is there a small list of every defined penalty.

There is a German site which does exactly this.

  • 1
    Section 27.4.2 of TeX by topic lists breaking point penalties. I'm not sure whether these are all the penalties there are though. Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 11:04
  • They are not, just the penalties associated with page breaking, as far as I can tell. There are some other for ,e.g., line breaking which are discussed in chapter 19. There might be others still besides those. Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 11:06
  • @RoelofSpijker: Thanks for your comment. I will compare the list with the German site ;-) Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 11:07
  • @Marco Daniel: The link to the German site is broken :-(
    – user31729
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 14:39
  • @ChristianHupfer: That's pitty. Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 17:54

2 Answers 2


Penalties are the main value that TeX tries to minimise when line or page breaking, They may be inserted explicitly (\penalty125 means that the penalty for breaking at that point is 125). Some penalties are built in to the TeX system and inserted automatically, LaTeX for example sets these default values for built in penalties


the penalty added to the badness of each line within a paragraph (no associated penalty node) Increasing the value makes tex try to have fewer lines in the paragraph.


value of the penalty (node) added after each line of a paragraph.


the penalty for line breaking at an automatically inserted hyphen


the penalty for line breaking at an explicit hyphen


the penalty for breaking a line at a binary operator


the penalty for breaking a line at a relation


extra penalty for breaking after first line of a paragraph


extra penalty for breaking before last line of a paragraph


extra penalty for breaking before last line before a display math


extra penalty for page breaking after a hyphenated line


penalty for breaking before a display


penalty for breaking after a display

\floatingpenalty = 20000

penalty for splitting an insertion (can only be split footnote in standard LaTeX)

e-tex adds some additional penalties (that are not set by default in LaTeX) but are supported by all three of the major engines


An extension to \interlinepenalty that allows different penalties to be added after each line. It takes a space separated list of numbers as value. If n is positive interlinepenalties n i1... in specifies the penalty to be used after each of the lines in a paragraph, with the last value being repeated as often as needed if the paragraph has more then n lines.


An extension of \clubpenalty with the same syntax as \interlinepenalties.


An extension of \widowpenalty with the same syntax as \interlinepenalties (lines arecounted backwards from the last line in this case).


An extension of \widowpenalty with the same syntax as \widowpenalties with lines counted backwards from each display math within a paragraph.

XeTeX supports one additional primitive penalty:


The full documentation of which is Inter-character linebreak penalty I believe it is the penalty inserted between characters for Asian typesetting which typically doesn't use inter-word spaces.

Other penalties are inserted by the format for example LaTeX defines a count

\newcount\interfootnotelinepenalty \interfootnotelinepenalty=100

but locally arranges that \linepenalty is set to this value while setting footnotes.

Similarly article class sets

\@lowpenalty   51
\@medpenalty  151
\@highpenalty 301

which are the values used by \pagebreak[1] ...

\samepage works by setting many of these penalties to "infinite" values:


Note penalties are not just numeric values they are actual nodes that are inserted into the horizontal or vertical list. they can be inspected with \lastpenalty or removed (in some contexts) with \unpenalty so for example \count0=\lastpenalty will put the value of the penalty (even if it was automatically inserted) into the count register if the penalty s the last thing in the current horizontal or vertical list.

For example this bit of LaTeX which tries to insert italic corrections without disturbing the penalties in the horizontal list

\def \fix@penalty {%
  \ifnum \lastpenalty=\z@
    \count@ \lastpenalty
    \penalty \count@

This is part of all the commands such as \textit that try to insert automatic italic correction.


The statement above that TeX tries to minimise penalties is in fact a simplification. For line breaking, the actual quantity that is minimised is demerits which is (more or less) the sum of the squares of the penalties associated with the linebreaks in a paragraph and the badness of each line (which is a measure of how much white space has been stretched beyond its specified limits) plus three additional demerit parameters as described below. The exact formula is in the TeXBook, but isn't usually relevant.

The three demerit parameters and the default values given to them by LaTeX are:


Additional demerit added to the paragraph for each pair of consecutive lines ending in a discretionary (typically a hyphen).


Additional demerit added if the penultimate line ends with a discretionary.


Additional demerit added for pairs of "incompatible" lines (ie a tight line in which white space is squeezed next to a loose line in which white space is stretched.)

Note, the values of demerit parameters are typically large (they combine with the square of penalty and badness units) also demerits are just a value used in the line breaking calculation. Unlike penalties they do not correspond to nodes that may be manipulated in TeX lists.

  • 1
    Is the maximum value of a penalty \@M=10.000? Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 11:37
  • 6
    Yes, or more exactly, any value greater than that is cut to that value before taking part in Tex's minimisation formula so 10[,.]000 is the maximum value that is worth using. hence \def\break{\penalty-\@M} \def\nobreak{\penalty \@M} Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 11:47
  • 4
    I mean this respectfully: how much of that was from memory?
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 5:29
  • 8
    well the original answer which just had the list of settings as a code block was just cut out of latex.ltx and article.cls which I always have to hand in an emacs buffer. I think most of the penalty descriptions I did off the top of my head, but checked a couple in the texbook, the demerits descriptions I checked the texbook first:-) Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 8:37
  • 1
    @moose yes binoppenalty and relpenalty listed above Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 11:43

Penalties are used by TeX for controlling the line and page break routines. Some of them are inserted implicitly, others can be added by the user (usually via macros). A penalty issued in horizontal or math mode will influence line breaking, one issued in vertical mode will influence page breaking decisions.

The list of "implicit penalties" can be found in the TeXbook (page 272):

\linepenalty amount added to badness of every line in a paragraph (v)
\hyphenpenalty penalty for line break after discretionary hyphen (h)
\exhyphenpenalty penalty for line break after explicit hyphen (h)
\binoppenalty penalty for line break after binary operation (m)
\relpenalty penalty for line break after math relation (m)
\clubpenalty penalty for creating a club line at bottom of page (v)
\widowpenalty penalty for creating a widow line at top of page (v)
\displaywidowpenalty ditto, before a display (v)
\brokenpenalty penalty for page break after a hyphenated line (v)
\predisplaypenalty penalty for page break just before a display (v)
\postdisplaypenalty penalty for page break just after a display (v)
\interlinepenalty additional penalty for page break between lines (v)
\floatingpenalty penalty for insertions that are split (v)

(I've added "h", "m" and "v" to show which ones are added in horizontal, math and vertical mode).

Their default values can be looked at by the usual \show\...penalty.

The LaTeX kernel adds to this list several other penalty parameters:

\@clubpenalty (storage bin)
\interfootnotelinepenalty (storage bin)
\interdisplaylinepenalty (storage bin, used for eqnarray)
\@beginparpenalty put at the beginning of a list (v)
\@endparpenalty put at the end of a list (v)
\@itempenalty put between items in a list (v)
\@secpenalty put before a sectional title (v)
\@floatpenalty used for the float mechanism (in a quite involved way)
\@lowpenalty put when the optional argument to \pagebreak or \linebreak is [1]
\@medpenalty put when the optional argument to \pagebreak or \linebreak is [2]
\@highpenalty put when the optional argument to \pagebreak or \linebreak is [3]

They are used either to insert penalties in appropriate spots (\@itempenalty, \@beginparpenalty and \@endparpenalty in list based environments; \@secpenalty for sectional titles) or as a storage bin for temporarily changing the implicit penalty values.

It's the case, for instance, of \@clubpenalty: LaTeX keeps changing the value of \clubpenalty, so one has to set this new parameter in order to establish a different value for the normally added penalty for discouraging club lines.

Also \interfootnotelinepenalty is a storage bin: the value of this parameter is used as the interline penalty in footnotes.

Of course one can directly insert a penalty manually; for example \nobreak is defined as

\penalty 10000

which inhibits a page or line break if found respectively in vertical or horizontal mode.

However one should keep in mind that penalties are discardable items, so they disappear at page or line breaks (if not used for triggering the break), but discussing this would bring too far. TeX also inserts automatically \penalty-10000 at the end of a paragraph for forcing the final break.

  • Could you please tell us more about the penalties added by the LaTeX kernel? (a short summary, like you did for TeX penalties)
    – ienissei
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 15:14

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