[OS X TeX] Plain TeX and OS X [slightly OT]

Bruno Voisin Bruno.Voisin at hmg.inpg.fr
Sat Jul 27 08:20:35 EDT 2002

I don't think I'm doing as sophisticated Plain TeX programming as you 
do, but yes I'm primarily a Plain TeX person and I always feel a bit 
uncomfortable using LaTeX (a bit lazy, a bit as a traitor, and so forth).

To quote a comparison from the preface of the first edition of "LaTeX: a 
Document Preparation System" (that documenting LaTeX 2.09), I find it 
always frustrating to move from a "highly-tuned racing car" (Plain TeX) 
to a "comfortable family sedan" (LaTeX). Even if "the family sedan isn't 
meant to go as fast as a racing car or be as exciting to drive, but it's 
comfortable and gets you to the grocery store with no fuss".

I like the elegance of Plain TeX programming compared with the heavy 
artillery of LaTeX. Everything related with page design is easier in 
plain TeX; there are also some things I couldn't achieve in LaTeX, like 
writing a displayed equation with short text on the left (e.g. "and" or 
"hence") and a number on the right (e.g. (1.2)), which is simple in 
Plain TeX using \displaylines.

There are however things which are unconvenient in Plain TeX and much 
easier in LaTeX, like:

- Writing itemized lists.

- Writing multilingual documents. I once had to write a report in French 
with passages in English, and I appreciated using the babel package to 
get proper hyphenation, space after punctuation, etc..

- Including graphics or multimedia content. It's easy using the graphics 
or graphicx packages, which take care of all driver-specific details, 
with a unique interface. You can do it in Plain TeX too, especially 
using pdfTeX which recognizes modern graphical and multimedia formats, 
but I still find pdfTeX syntax (these 
\pdfximage{legi150.jpg}\pdfrefximage\pdflastximage) illogical and 
undecipherable. Moreover, if you use Plain TeX's \magnification setting 
to increase the size of characters you also increase the size of your 
graphics and you have to scale them down to get them printed at their 
proper size.

- Using different font sizes in your documents. Quite tedious in Plain 

In summary: you can do almost everything in both Plain TeX and LaTeX, 
some things are easier in Plain TeX, others in LaTeX. Plain TeX allows 
you to control everything, but it has a price: having to write obvious 
and uninteresting tasks into as many details as complicated and exciting 
tasks. To quote the preface again: "however, the LaTeX sedan has all the 
power of [Plain] TeX hidden under its hood, and the more adventurous 
driver can do everything with it than he can with [Plain] TeX".

There are versions, for example, of the babel and graphics packages for 
use with Plain TeX, but since their syntax is LaTeX-like why not use 
LaTeX from the beginning.

A couple months ago I wrote a letterformat for my lab, with both Plain 
TeX and LaTeX versions, you can have a look at them if you like to see 
how the same tasks are accomplished in both formats. The versions are 
available on my pretty-much-in-construction web page at 

Coming from Plain TeX, one thing you must be aware of: LaTeX has not 
quite the same notions of horizontal, vertical and math modes as Plain 
TeX does, you must be careful when converting a page design from one 
format to the other, for avoiding unwanted vertical spaces to be 

Some more ideas:

- The eplain format makes some LaTeX features (like automatic numbering 
of sections, equations, etc.) available to Plain TeX without taking any 
unwanted initiative regarding page design.

- The book by Kopka and Daly uses a mixture of LaTeX and Plain TeX 
programming, telling which one is more suitable for accomplishing a 
specific task.

- The ConTeXt format, based entirely on pdfTeX, is a substitute to LaTeX 
which uses a syntax closer to Plain TeX and produces superb documents. 
Colors, multimedia content, display- or printing-oriented output are all 
here. Maybe you'll like it better than LaTeX. However every time I 
thought about using it I had a look at the web site 
<http://www.pragma-ade.com> and got discouraged: should I really 
download and read all these manuals to start using it, can't I just get 
one manual describing all of ConTeXt, print it and read it quietly at 
home? Moreover ConTeXt doesn't seem to do equations for now!

One more thing, in case you consider switching to LaTeX and investing 
time for this (a personal opinion, perhaps wildly wrong): with LaTeX 3, 
aka Sleeping Beauty, I'm not convinced of the future of LaTeX.

Hope this helps, sorry for the verbosity,

Bruno Voisin

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