[texhax] learning tex vs latex

Pierre MacKay pierre.mackay at comcast.net
Wed Oct 28 06:35:59 CET 2009

On 10/27/2009 07:30 PM, Alan T Litchfield wrote:
> Bill,
> Your time, if considering only those two options, would be better 
> spent learning LaTeX. IMHO but YMMV.
Alan Litchfield gave you one answer, which is the one most often 
offered.  I have for years disagreed.
LaTeX, which began as a clone of Brian Reid's Scribe based on the TeX 
typesetting engine (this is not always acknowledged, but is obvious from 
the terminology) has metastasized into a collection of often 
well-designed routines, which are accessible only through a sort of C++ 
syntax that I, for one, but not the only one, find bewildering.  LaTeX 
commands ofter run you through 5  or more parameters that I simply have 
not the patience to deal with.  My basic problem with LaTeX is that it 
has a genius for making simple things complex, and does so at every 
possible instance.

It is nonsense to speak of LaTeX as developing, while TeX is not.  LaTeX 
is a macro package built on top of TeX.  It can not "develop" in the 
sense of altering the basic engine, because Donald Knuth has taken great 
care to ensure archival compatibility for all input files that ever ran 
in TeX3.  If a package requires something that cannot be run in the 
basic TeX3 engine, it may not be called TeX.

The fine tuning that is possible in a macro package based on plain TeX 
may be possible in LaTeX, but LaTeX, for its own protection, shuts off 
many avenues for such fine tuning, or at best, disguises them so 
thoroughly that you will have real difficulty discovering how to walk 
down them.

The model for LaTeX has become the "black box", all too like Microsoft.  
Because it is released under GPL or similar provisions, the basic source 
code is always available, and that is a very good thing, but I have used 
plain TeX since 1984, and written pages of routines to do finely 
adjusted formating which I use for publication in academic journals, and 
it is not clear to me that the documentation model for LaTeX is 
seriously better than the comments in my macro package.
I can rarely understand what LaTeX docs are saying, owing to the C++ 
syntax that runs throughout them.

If you are satisfied with LaTeX formating, you should probably go with 
it.  I think it is often slovenly, and though I am assured that, since 
LaTeX is ultimately built on top of plain TeX, it would be possible to 
get rid of the slovenliness, I have never thought that I had the time to 
put into that.

Finally, the advantage of plain.tex over LaTeX is that you remain in 
control.  With LaTeX, you are left in a position that is far too like 
what Microsoft Word offers you: "We know better than you do what you 
want"---again with the important proviso that you are always free to 
read all the source macros of LaTeX, but that is never the case for the 
source code of Word.

Pierre MacKay

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