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In my opinion

Peter Flynn

  Formatting information: Preface

Many people discover LaTeX after years of struggling with wordprocessors and desktop publishing systems, and are amazed to find that TeX has been around for nearly 25 years and they hadn't heard of it. It's not a conspiracy, just ‘a well-kept secret known only to a few million people’, as one anonymous user put it.

Donald Knuth originally wrote TeX to typeset mathematics for the second edition of his master-work The Art of Computer Programming1, and it remains pretty much the only typesetting program to include fully-automated mathematical formatting done the way mathematicians want it. But TeX is much more than math: it's a programmable typesetting system which can be used for almost any formatting task, and LaTeX has made it usable by almost anyone. Knuth generously placed the entire system in the public domain, so for many years there was no publicity of the commercial kind which would have got TeX noticed outside the technical field. Nowadays, however, there are many companies selling TeX software or services, dozens of publishers accepting LaTeX documents for publication, and hundreds of thousands of users using LaTeX for millions of documents.2

There is occasionally some confusion among newcomers between the two main products, TeX and LaTeX:

  • TeX is a typesetting program, originally written by Knuth at Stanford around 1978. It implements a macro-driven typesetters' programming language of some 300 basic operations and it has formed the core of many other desktop publishing systems. Although it is still possible to write in the raw TeX language, you need to study it in depth, and you need to be able to write macros (subprograms) to perform even the simplest of repetitive tasks.

  • LaTeX is a user interface for TeX, designed by Leslie Lamport in 1985 to automate all the common tasks of document preparation. It provides a simple way for authors and typesetters to use the power of TeX without having to learn the entire language. LaTeX is the recommended system for all users except professional typographic programmers and computer scientists who want to study the internals of TeX.


CTAN. The Comprehensive TeX Archive Network is a repository or collection of Web and FTP servers worldwide which contain copies of almost every free piece of software related to TeX and LaTeX. CTAN is rooted at  (See Jim Hefferon's article on CTAN in this issue. -Ed.) 

XML. Extensible Markup Language. A simple yet powerful system for defining document structure. XML is now becoming the principal system of markup, replacing older systems such as SGML.

  1. Knuth, Donald Ervin: The Art of Computer Programming. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, second edition, 0-201-89685-0, 1980.
  2. A guesstimate. With free software it's impossible to tell how many people are using it, but it's a lot.
[Editor's note: This was adapted from the Preface of Peter Flynn's Formatting Information, November 2003. See Peter's site for the original html and pdf versions of this guide.]

Peter Flynn is manager of the electronic publishing unit at University College Cork and also runs a small consultancy handling industrial, research, and legal documentation. He found TeX in 1979 and has used it for everything from business cards to posters. Peter can be reached at


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