[texhax] learning tex vs latex

Philip TAYLOR P.Taylor at Rhul.Ac.Uk
Fri Oct 30 12:47:00 CET 2009

Susan Dittmar wrote:

> For my taste there were far too many responses stressing the importance of
> the underlying TeX.

Well, dare I suggest that perhaps there was good
reason for that large number of similarly-themed
responses ?

> I do not disagree with the authors of those posts
> concerning TeX's importance, but I wanted to shed light on the approach of
> *starting* with LaTeX. Not even to tell them wrong, just as another
> opinion. LaTeX, in my eyes, allows good results with less effort and less
> learning than using plain TeX.

I don't think I would agree with "good results", but
I would have no problem with "adequate".

> My boss is an assembler type guy. So the plain TeX commands appeal to him.
> But he never invested the time to learn about typography. He thinks "I want
> to start a new paragraph here and I want it to have some vertical distance
> from the previous paragraph" and adds a macro he once created with some
> fixed vertical space, without any thought about which kind of vertical
> space would be typographically correct at this place.  With his
> non-willingness to learn about the underlaying typographical concepts, I
> wish he used a more LaTeX kind of approach -- allowing the engine to choose
> the correct kind of spacing.

I sympathise with you.  Someone who sets out to use Plain TeX
without also taking the trouble to try to understand typography
is going to get into deep deep doo-doo.  They will also almost
certainly follow Knuth's style of coding which (sadly) does
almost nothing to separate form from content (\bigskip and
friends are really evil, IMHO).  But if you have someone who
(a) understands (or is willing to learn) typography, and (b)
wishes to write his/her own content-oriented interface to the
TeX primitives, rather than relying on either LaTeX or Plain
TeX, then he/she should be congratulated rather than castigated.

No matter whether someone uses LaTeX or Plain TeX, they /still/
need to have a basic understanding of typography.  If they lack
that (and aren't willing to acquire it), then both LaTeX and
Plain TeX can produce execrable results, but in general LaTeX
is more likely to produce /acceptable/ results in unskilled
hands.  Plain TeX cedes far more control to the user, which
is both a benefit and a risk : for myself, I wish more TeX
users were willing to learn a little about typography and
then develop their own interface(s) to low-level TeX, but
I accept that many (perhaps, sadly, even most) lack the time,
the interest and the inclination so to do.

Philip Taylor

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