[Tex/LaTex] What are TeX and LaTeX


I'm surprised no one else has asked this question. It's not explained very well in the FAQ or site descriptions either.

I know many of you will think "LMGTFY", "RTFM", or "ask wikipedia", but I'd rather get the answer straight from the experts.

I'm so green I don't even know what to tag this question.

  • what is it?
  • what is it used for?
  • who uses it?
  • what is it in alternative to?
  • how widespread is its use?
  • does the average user type the language in as plain text or are there WYSIWYG tools?

And finally, a nice fun subjective bit to end things on a sour note. I guess this leads a bit back to the question regarding what TeX is the alternative to.

Is it a worthwhile technology to invest time in learning as a programmer/technology junkie who hates word processing apps with a passion? I'd rather write a wiki page than a letter in Word. But I don't know if that means I should switch from plain text to TeX or if that's like using a bazooka when all i need is a hammer?

Best Answer

First, Mike's answer is quite good. I will mostly expand on it and provide more details.


TeX is a language (a full programming language, actually) for typesetting documents. It originally output to a format called DVI which could then be converted to PostScript, PDF, etc.; more recent versions can output directly to PDF. You write a document with TeX instructions in it, and the TeX system will convert it into printable material.

TeX is used for a wide variety of documents, particularly in science and academia. Most people use it for things that other people would likely use Word for; however, the quality of its results are more on a par with InDesign or other major document layout packages, far superior what word processors generally yield. Designing specialized or ad-hoc document formats such as brochures, however, is probably easier with InDesign or QuarkXPress (although it is not impossible to do so in TeX/LaTeX).

TeX itself is quite low-level.


LaTeX is a macro package written in and for TeX that provides commands and defaults for writing larger documents at a higher level, taking care of things like sectioning, tables of contents, etc. In my experience, most TeX users do not write low-level TeX directly, but rather use LaTeX. LaTeX is not the only such package, though; ConTeXt is another macro package with a different design philosophy, but it sits at a similar level to LaTeX.


TeX and LaTeX are very widespread in some portions of academia, such as mathematics and computer science, due to its superb support for mathematical formulas. I have also heard that it is popular in some other disciplines as well, such as linguistics.