[texhax] learning tex vs latex

crebecca at uchicago.edu crebecca at uchicago.edu
Wed Oct 28 15:09:19 CET 2009

You can't read your way through this decision; you have to try something out. 
Where you begin may depend on your background: programming/mathematics 
versus WYSIWYG.  But either way, you'll need to practice on something that 
eventually makes the TeX/LaTeX distinctions concrete.  If you can't complete a 
project at all, then neither TeX nor LaTeX is helpful. 

So find a project.  At some point you'll need something from the dark side 
(LaTeX, or TeX, depending).  I've started with LaTeX, and now want to modify 
macros, but can't yet decipher the underlying TeX commands in the 
documentation.  I always find LaTeX documentation clear until I read the 
commands underlying the LaTeX macros.  But it's fine; my project will get done.  
Web-based support for LaTeX is remarkably good, as are the standard books.

Knuth himself is one of the clearest explainers of his own work - he deserves 
more recognition in book history circles than he's getting right now.  Whatever 
you do, read the TeXbook while you do it.


---- Original message ----
>Date: Wed, 28 Oct 2009 08:56:32 +0000
>From: Philip TAYLOR <P.Taylor at Rhul.Ac.Uk>  
>Subject: Re: [texhax] learning tex vs latex  
>To: bill lam <cbill.lam at gmail.com>
>Cc: texhax <texhax at tug.org>
>Dear Bill --
>> I'm unfamiliar with both tex and latex. Should my time better spent on
>> learning tex or latex?  Presumably learning curve of tex is even more
>> steeper than that of latex, but I saw some forum members said they use
>> plain tex.  I would like to know before deciding,
>> 1. Do common packages such as supertabular and cjk work on tex?
>Almost certainly not.  When one speaks of a package (in this
>context), one is almost invariably speaking of a LaTeX package.
>> 2. Some said latex is actively developing while tex is not, is that
>>    true?
>LaTeX is being actively developed by the LaTeX 3 team
>(Frank Mittelbach, Chris Rowley and many others); TeX
>itself is frozen, but variants continue to emerge
>(eTeX, PdfTeX, LuaTeX, XeTeX, ...).  However, this is
>like comparing chalk and cheese : the real question is
>"are new packages for Plain TeX being developed", to
>which the answer is almost certainly "no" (even I, who
>work almost entirely in Plain TeX, do not write "packages"
>in the strict sense of the word (well, not any more);
>rather, I develop solutions to whatever problems I currently
>face, and then (sometimes) present those solutions at
>> 3. What will be the advantage of plain tex over latex?
>There are a number of advantages, and some disadvantages.
>Advantages :
>1) You get to understand how TeX works, at a really deep level.
>2) You have the freedom to express your ideas exactly as you
>    choose -- if you don't like the "backslash and brace"
>    convention, you can design/implement/use another (say,
>    an SGML/XML-like syntax, for example)
>3) You are in complete control : if something doesn't work
>   (or doesn't work as you would wish it), you can fix it
>   (or at least try to fix it !).
>4) You are forced to THINK.  LaTeX tries to spoon-feed you
>    canned solutions; with Plain TeX, there are no canned
>    solutions -- everything you want to eat, you have to
>    hunt, shoot, butcher and cook for yourself (or forage,
>    gather and cook, if you happen to be a vegetarian).
>Disadvantages :
>1) You cut yourself off from the incredibly wide range of
>    LaTeX packages that have already been written.  Even I,
>    who am a died-in-the-wool Plain TeX aficionado, have been
>    extremely impressed with the range and quality of these
>    packages, which can -- used intelligently -- much simplify
>    the more routine typesetting tasks.
>2) You need document design skills.  Although it could hardly
>    be claimed that out-of-the-box LaTeX output is beautiful,
>    it does at least heed the more important design considerations.
>I was surprised when I got this far that I could find only two
>disadvantages to the use of Plain TeX; I had genuinely thought
>that the number of advantages and disadvantages would be of
>the same order of magnitude.  Perhaps my problem is that
>I continue to see Plain TeX through rose-coloured glasses,
>although I have recently come to accept that IF (big IF)
>I am prepared to work within the LaTeX framework, there is
>a large corpus of extant material on which I can call.
>Unfortunately I always think of LaTeX as a nanny-like figure
>who takes great care to protect little Johnny from all the
>nasty things that lurk in the grown-ups' world of Real TeX [tm],
>but who as an unfortunate side-effect stultifies his powers
>of expression, and forces him to think like "all the other
>nice little boys and girls that listen to their nannies".
>One last analogy : Plain TeX is to assembly language as
>LaTeX is to Cobol.  That probably sums it up, although
>the assembly language is far closer to Macro-32 in its
>expressiveness than it is to more primitive assembly languages.
>Philip Taylor
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Rebecca Chung 
crebecca at uchicago.edu

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