# Alex Kahn

## Up and Running With LaTeX

May 13, 2010

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with LaTeX. For those that don’t know, LaTeX is a typesetting system that turns marked-up text files into precise, readable, print-ready documents. LaTeX is specialized for creating technical documents containing math and equations, but it’s also well-suited for any structured document. LaTeX is not just the command-line tool for procesing .tex files, though—it’s an entire ecosystem consisting of libraries, packages and tools for myriad purposes. The size of this ecosystem is staggering. At times, it’s frustrating. But I’ve grown to appreciate it the more I’ve learned.

What’s so great about LaTeX? I love that it demands explicitness. It doesn’t try to guess what you mean. Want a hyphen? Use -. Want a slightly longer dash, suitable for numerical ranges? That’s --. Using a dash for punctuation? --- inserts an em dash. The same explicitness applies to quotes. How does LaTeX know what is an opening quote and what is a closing quote? You tell it. Use two backticks () for an opening quote and two apostrophes for a closing quote (''). These are two examples of the attention to detail that LaTeX promotes.

Some things are more automatic. Hyphenation, for example, is handled by LaTeX. And it’s smart.1 The system sometimes misses possible hyphenation points, but it’s very good at avoiding incorrect hyphenation, such as “new-spapers.” It also allows manual control of hyphenation. For example, put \- in the middle of a word to identify a possible hyphenation point. I also found some of these line breaking commands helpful.

LaTeX excels at working with tables, references, bibliographies, footnotes, indexes (and math, of course)—features whose use ranges from tedious to hellish in word processing software. Perhaps its greatest strength is that unlike word processing software, LaTeX forces authors to focus on the content and structure of a document, rather than its presentation. LaTeX takes care of what it looks like. It’s the anti-WYSIWYG.