[texhax] learning tex vs latex

Philip TAYLOR P.Taylor at Rhul.Ac.Uk
Wed Oct 28 09:56:32 CET 2009

Dear Bill --

> I'm unfamiliar with both tex and latex. Should my time better spent on
> learning tex or latex?  Presumably learning curve of tex is even more
> steeper than that of latex, but I saw some forum members said they use
> plain tex.  I would like to know before deciding,
> 1. Do common packages such as supertabular and cjk work on tex?

Almost certainly not.  When one speaks of a package (in this
context), one is almost invariably speaking of a LaTeX package.

> 2. Some said latex is actively developing while tex is not, is that
>    true?

LaTeX is being actively developed by the LaTeX 3 team
(Frank Mittelbach, Chris Rowley and many others); TeX
itself is frozen, but variants continue to emerge
(eTeX, PdfTeX, LuaTeX, XeTeX, ...).  However, this is
like comparing chalk and cheese : the real question is
"are new packages for Plain TeX being developed", to
which the answer is almost certainly "no" (even I, who
work almost entirely in Plain TeX, do not write "packages"
in the strict sense of the word (well, not any more);
rather, I develop solutions to whatever problems I currently
face, and then (sometimes) present those solutions at

> 3. What will be the advantage of plain tex over latex?

There are a number of advantages, and some disadvantages.

Advantages :

1) You get to understand how TeX works, at a really deep level.

2) You have the freedom to express your ideas exactly as you
    choose -- if you don't like the "backslash and brace"
    convention, you can design/implement/use another (say,
    an SGML/XML-like syntax, for example)

3) You are in complete control : if something doesn't work
   (or doesn't work as you would wish it), you can fix it
   (or at least try to fix it !).

4) You are forced to THINK.  LaTeX tries to spoon-feed you
    canned solutions; with Plain TeX, there are no canned
    solutions -- everything you want to eat, you have to
    hunt, shoot, butcher and cook for yourself (or forage,
    gather and cook, if you happen to be a vegetarian).

Disadvantages :

1) You cut yourself off from the incredibly wide range of
    LaTeX packages that have already been written.  Even I,
    who am a died-in-the-wool Plain TeX aficionado, have been
    extremely impressed with the range and quality of these
    packages, which can -- used intelligently -- much simplify
    the more routine typesetting tasks.

2) You need document design skills.  Although it could hardly
    be claimed that out-of-the-box LaTeX output is beautiful,
    it does at least heed the more important design considerations.

I was surprised when I got this far that I could find only two
disadvantages to the use of Plain TeX; I had genuinely thought
that the number of advantages and disadvantages would be of
the same order of magnitude.  Perhaps my problem is that
I continue to see Plain TeX through rose-coloured glasses,
although I have recently come to accept that IF (big IF)
I am prepared to work within the LaTeX framework, there is
a large corpus of extant material on which I can call.
Unfortunately I always think of LaTeX as a nanny-like figure
who takes great care to protect little Johnny from all the
nasty things that lurk in the grown-ups' world of Real TeX [tm],
but who as an unfortunate side-effect stultifies his powers
of expression, and forces him to think like "all the other
nice little boys and girls that listen to their nannies".

One last analogy : Plain TeX is to assembly language as
LaTeX is to Cobol.  That probably sums it up, although
the assembly language is far closer to Macro-32 in its
expressiveness than it is to more primitive assembly languages.

Philip Taylor

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