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Ask Nelly:
     What is ConTeXt?;
     What is LaTeX3?;
     Why should a college student use LaTeX?;
     How do I make temporary margin notes?

The Editors

Ask Nelly is a question and answer column. Nelly is the quiet person who sits at the back corner desk, who knows a lot, and when asked any question is always ready with a patient answer. If Nelly doesn't know the answer, Nelly will know an expert who has the answer. Feel free to Ask Nelly about any aspect of LaTeX, TeX, Context, etc.

Q:  What is ConTeXt?

A:  ConTeXt is a macro package for TeX written by Hans Hagen and Ton Otten of Pragma ADE in the Netherlands. Like LaTeX, ConTeXt is applicable to most typesetting needs. Unlike LaTeX, ConTeXt is monolithic, by which I mean it is designed, implemented, and distributed as a whole. Its completeness is evident in the breath of its concepts and consistency of its syntax.

Forged in the crucible of the educational publishing world, ConTeXt has grown to accommodate the most advanced and demanding typesetting needs. The practical upshot of this is that if you need a particular feature, it probably is already implemented. A few of its most noteworthy features include:

  1. multiple language interfaces including: English, German, and Dutch
  2. a font naming scheme that allows you mix and match different typefaces
  3. a native XML parser
  4. native XML-FO support
  5. native MathML support
  6. integrated graphics with MetaPost
  7. full color support in both rgb and cmyk
  8. direct access to and control over the interactive capabilities of PDF
I would not say that ConTeXt has a steep learning curve but rather a long one. Thankfully, there is sufficient documentation, and a vibrant development community to offer support.

By way of example, attached are the ConTeXt source file and the resulting pdf file.

Visit the Pragma website at to learn more about ConTeXt. There you will find both examples to whet your appetite and manuals to answer your questions. I recommend you start by reading the introductory 'ConTeXt an Excursion' and then move onto the full ConTeXt manual. You will find additional examples of, discussions about, and documentation for ConTeXt on the community wiki at: Finally, you can subscribe to the ConTeXt mailing list at:

This question was answered by Michael Guravage, a consultant who specializes in content management and document engineering. He can be reached at 

Q:  I have LaTeX2ε installed on my computer, but I see occasional mentions of LaTeX3. What is that?

A:  LaTeX3 is a pointer into the future; a long-term project by a team of experts; and someday a new LaTeX. The project has already produced LaTeX2ε, where the ε means it is incrementally better than the first version, LaTeX 2.09. Some of the improvements being worked on are in help, error-handling, control of where your floats (figures and tables) appear, documentation, and font control. You can go to the newsgroup comp.text.tex and add your own wishes to the list. The LaTeX3 project and its personnel are described at where you can find the report by Frank Mittelbach and Chris Rowley that contributed to this answer.

The question was answered by David L. Elliott who is Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Systems at Washington University, St. Louis, and currently a visiting senior research scientist at the Institute for Systems Research, University of Maryland. He has edited a volume of research papers using LaTeX and PostScript and is currently working on his own book using LaTeX. Email: 

Q:  Why should a college student use LaTeX?

A:  I have heard this question asked a number of times in the past couple of years as I have introduced LaTeX into my department. I have a number of answers that I give to my students.

The first reason I give is that they are in college to learn. Learning how to use LaTeX will make it easier for students to learn how to use other markup languages. This will be an important skill to have as the Internet and its associated languages continue to bloom. The publishing industry is heading toward XML and related technologies, and students should want to be prepared to flourish in this new landscape.

Next, there is an increasing expectation for students entering graduate programs to know some form of typesetting software. My introduction to LaTeX came in my first graduate course when the instructor demanded that we type our homework solutions. He didn't care what program we used, but he agreed to cover the cost of LaTeX manuals for any interested students.

Then, I sometimes hear the question, "Why is there an increasing expectation for students, especially science students, to know LaTeX?" I respond by talking about the fantastic output generated by LaTeX. It is true that word processing programs can create equations, but in my opinion the output pales in comparison to that of LaTeX. Add to that the fact that for most of these programs one needs to go back to the equation composer for every equation, and you soon find that you are spending hours creating equations. While in LaTeX, after a few weeks of dedicated study, one is able to enter equations practically as fast as one can type.

The last thing I tell my students is that LaTeX allows them the opportunity to focus on the writing. With LaTeX the author needs to organize the individual segments of the document and worry about the content. The class file will handle the formatting. If you decide to reorder the chapters or sections within a document, it doesn't mean hours of work trying to renumber all of the equations, figures, and references. At worst the author could spend a few hours after the document is written tweaking breaks and looking for a package that will typeset something in a particular fashion. My students and I have found this to be a great benefit.

These are just a few of the reasons I think students can benefit from learning LaTeX. For most students it will be an investment of a few weeks that will open the door to a wonderful journey. I am still learning things about LaTeX and typesetting twelve years later, and I think that is a good thing.

This question was answered by Jon W. Breitenbucher. Jon is Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the College of Wooster (Ohio, USA) and will soon move into a new position as Instructional Technology Specialist and Adjunct Professor. He was introduced to LaTeX in 1992 and has been using it for all course related materials since that time. One of his goals is to introduce LaTeX to as many people as he can. He can be reached at 

Q:  How do I make temporary margin notes?

A:  Here at Duke University Press, we provide our authors with PDF proofs. If, at this point, we still have questions about content, wording, line breaks in displays, etc., we put our queries in the margins. An author recently asked how we did this. The generic details are illustrated in the attached pdf file.

This question was answered by Steve Grathwohl. Steve is a developer of digital content for Duke University Press. He began fooling around with TeX in the late 1980s and, aided and abetted by Duke, is still doing so. Steve is the local host for Practical TeX 2005 in Chapel Hill, NC this coming summer. Contact him at 


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