[OS X TeX] TeX is not for the faint of heart

Rebecca Weber rweber at nd.edu
Wed May 5 12:15:34 EDT 2004

On May 5, 2004, at 2:40 AM, m wrote:

> If I may chime in here...
> The introductions given on this particular page and on TeXShop's page 
> as well are still *far* too technical. If one has never ever heard of 
> TeX before, except for those moments of math-students telling him that 
> TeX was the coolest thing on earth, these "intros" don't do a very 
> good job.


> Programs, support files, macros, commands?
> Distribution, binaries, scripts, frontends?
> Device independendet DVI, ASCII TeX source, translated, device, X11, 
> Windows, Unix core, TeX Live, foundation... some guy named Sebastian 
> Rahtz... suddenly teTeX, big advantage: teTeX-texfm, then GhostScript, 
> "run pdfTeX".

I've done a lot of explaining of "what TeX is" in the past few years 
(I'm one of those math students who thinks it's at least close to the 
coolest thing on earth).  I wrote something this morning that could 
perhaps be expanded into The Utter Newbie's Explanation.  It needs some 
work before it can take a complete novice to someone who understands 
all of the terms in Mahakk's list, but I think it's a first step - it 
goes from a complete novice to (hopefully) someone who's not *afraid* 
of the terms in the list above.  Those who are still feeling the sting 
of their novice time can judge whether this would have been helpful to 
them.  There would still have to be a "second pass" after this, one 
that answers questions like "what does a documentclass do?" and "what 
is this usepackage business?"

A note on what's below: words which are preceded and followed by 
underscores are meant to be underlined or italicized as vocabulary 
terms.  Everything else is meant to be read verbatim.  It includes html 
commands, so if your mail reader is html-enabled you might have some 
confusion.  The three major lacks in this explanation are a list of 
reference books, a description of where you can go to get programs, and 
some small, non-comprehensive sample files (all of which exist 
elsewhere and could easily be incorporated).  It might also benefit 
from a glossary (which could include terms not used in the explanation, 
like most of those in Mahakk's list).
Just my two cents,


What is TeX?
TeX (here used as a catch-all term for all the various kinds of TeX, 
such as LaTeX) is a _markup_language_, a system of typesetting where 
you write plain unformatted text (as you might in TextEdit or Notepad), 
and that is turned into pretty formatted text (as you might see in 
Word, only prettier) by a _compiler_.  That is, instead of selecting 
"italics" from a menu and seeing your text instantly italicized, you 
type a command that will be interpreted by the compiler as "put this 
text into italics".  Another markup language you might be familiar with 
is html; if not, you can see examples by opening a webpage and 
selecting "view source" from one of the menus in your browser 
(Netscape, IE, Safari, etc.).  Choose a plain page (without a lot of 
graphics, forms, or frames) and compare what you see in the original 
browser to what you see in the source window -- the source file has a 
lot of text that does not appear in the webpage.  The source file has 
been _rendered_ into the webpage image, using the information from the 
extra text, or _commands_.  In TeX, we speak of a text file being 
_compiled_, turned into a pdf, dvi, or ps file.  The first kind you're 
probably familiar with from web browsing; the other two are just 
different formats which we can get into later.

Now some examples, comparing to html:
* To begin and end a webpage, you use the commands <html> and </html>.  
To begin and end a TeX document, you use \begin{document} and 
\end{document}.  TeX has more options than html, though, so you will 
also have to include some information before the \begin{document} to 
tell the program which options you're exercising.  In particular, you 
must include the command \documentclass{classname}, where classname is 
replaced by the kind of document you want to make: article, book, 
letter,... the list goes on and is added to regularly.
* To italicize in html, you enclose the text in <em> and </em>, as so: 
<em>this text is italicized</em>.  In Tex, it's a single command with 
the italicized text enclosed in curly braces: \emph{this text is 
* To center in html, you enclose the text in <center> and </center>.  
In TeX, these change to \begin{center} and \end{center}.

If you've looked at some TeX files, your next question might be "what's 
with all the dollar signs?"  Some commands in TeX only work in 
_math_mode_, and you tell the program you're entering or leaving math 
mode via a dollar sign.  This gives TeX the ability to double up on 
commands - to give one command two meanings, depending on whether it's 
in math mode or not.  An example is the dash: out of math mode, that 
is, simply -, it is a short dash.  Inside math mode, $-$, it is a minus 
sign and so is longer.

That brings us to one other point: some symbols are used specially, 
like \ and $, and so there are different commands that produce that 
symbol on the page.  If you type a single \, TeX expects the next thing 
it reads to be a command.  If you want a backslash to appear on the 
page, that next command should be \ again: \\ will print a backslash.  
To get other special characters, you also precede them with a 
backslash, as in \$ for a dollar sign.

The best way to learn TeX in the beginning is by looking at other 
people's files (as is also true for html and most programming 
languages).  Once the syntax (way of writing it) starts to make more 
intuitive sense to you, there are a number of excellent reference books 
from which to learn more commands.  <insert list of books here>

How do I get it?
To use TeX, you need a "front end" and a "back end" (or "foundation").  
The front end is the editor and viewer: where you type your text and 
where you view the compiled result.  The back end is the program that 
does the compilation along with all the information it uses to do so.  
These pieces are all put together for html in the form of web browsers 
(well, those with built-in web design programs, like Netscape 
Composer), but for Tex (if you want it for free) you must download and 
install them separately.  <insert instructions for installation here - 
I'm biased toward iInstaller/TeXShop, which was very easy to install 
and use; mention could also be made of WinEdt/MikTex for any Windows 
users who might happen by>

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