[Tex/LaTex] What’s the difference between \newcommand and \newcommand*


I just spotted someone use \newcommand* in an answer and realised that I'd never quite sorted out in my head what the star (asterisk) was there for.

(This one is practically impossible to search for on the internet so this is a good place to record the answer!)

Best Answer

A bit of background first. When Knuth wrote TeX, he realised that most macros would not need to absorb more than one paragraph as an argument. As a result, a good way to test for errors such as a missing } is to forbid macros to accept paragraph tokens (either those generated by blank lines or explicit \par tokens). So he created \def for definitions which cannot take a paragraph token, and the \long prefix to allow them to:

\def\examplea#1{% #1 cannot contain \par
\long\def\exampleb#1{% #1 can contain \par

When LaTeX was written, Lamport created \newcommand as a wrapper around \def with various bits of error checking. He found that paragraph tokens can pop up in odd places. So he decided that \newcommand would be 'long'. When the LaTeX team took over for LaTeX2e, they decided that you would need to add the modifier * to prevent this:

\newcommand{\examplea}[1]{% #1 can contain \par
\newcommand*{\exampleb}[1]{% #1 cannot contain \par

Most of the time, \newcommand* is the best choice as you want the error-checking that it provides. That is why examples given by experienced LaTeX users normally use this form, rather than just \newcommand.

The same behaviour is seen with \newenvironment:

\newenvironment{examplea}[1]{% #1 can contain \par
\newenvironment*{exampleb}[1]{% #1 cannot contain \par

This works by defining \examplea and \endexamplea more-or-less using \newcommand, and \exampleb and \endexampleb more-or-less using \newcommand*. As a result, the 'end' macros have the same 'long' status as the 'begin' ones, even though they never take arguments. (Note that this does not affect what can go into the body of the environment, only the arguments at the start.) Environments are covered in more detail in What is the difference between \newenvironment and \newenvironment*?.

For LaTeX3, we've decided to take a somewhat hybrid approach. If you use xparse for defining document commands, they are only 'long' if you ask for it:

\NewDocumentCommand\examplea{m}{% #1 cannot contain \par
\NewDocumentCommand\examplab{+m}{% #1 can contain \par

(We've decided on + to represent a long argument). On the other hand, for internal use it is normally best to accept paragraph tokens, and to leave the filtering to the user interface level.