[texhax] Plain vs. Latex

Michael Barr barr at math.mcgill.ca
Wed Oct 28 12:54:35 CET 2009

I would like to add my 2c to what Pierre MacKay and others have said. 
Let me begin by pointing out that nearly all of plain can also be used in 
latex.  There are exceptions, but not many and mostly not important and 
you can always add them to your own file of macros.  This is not true of 
amslatex, incidentally, which has gone to a lot of trouble to make it 
quite difficult, although not impossible, to use plain macros.  I don't 
understand their philosophy, but then that was why I quit the organization 
40 years ago.

If you look at my papers, they are nominally latex (and indeed the journal 
I do the tex editing for accepts on latex), but you see plenty of what is 
obviously plain tex in them.  For example, I detest the 
\newcommand/\renewcommand idea and never use anything but \def and \let 
(the latter doesn't even exist in latex) and latex never complains.  I 
generally avoid using \begin{xxx} and \end{xxx} pairs, although sometimes 
the replacement \xxx, \endxxx don't work the same and I have never 
understood why.  I hate the multiply nested braces that latex 
recommends (but doesn't enforce) and use braces only when necessary.  My 
diagram macros (and indeed the xy-pic they are based on) run fine in both 
plain and latex.  Although it would probably be possible to program them 
in orthodox latex, it would be much harder and why bother?

Someone was asking about a package to do memorandums in latex when he had 
a macro package in plain tex that worked.  Not one respondent thought to 
suggest that he try to just include the plain package--it would likely 
work fine.  Sometimes, I get criticized in my postings because I use \def 
in latex or do some other non-orthodox thing.  As though latex were a 
religion, not a tool.

There are certainly things that latex does well.  Things like setting up 
the first page of a paper are easy in latex.  Font handling, once you get 
past the woeful documentation is much easier and I use nothing else. 
Things like lists are well-done and I use them.

Incidentally, I have always made sure I keep a copy of Lamport's original 
latex package as it provides an awful lot of useful documentation that 
latex 2e, for all its advantages, does not provide.  Latex 2e has a 
priesthood and woe betide someone who wants to figure it out for himself. 
(Okay, I exaggerate.)  Incidentally, I once had a bit of correspondence 
with Leslie Lamport and he certainly approved of how I was mixing plain 
and latex.

Another advantage to learning both plain and latex is that you will then 
get and use The TeXBook and actually learn something of the innards of

I have had intimations that latex 3 will go to some lengths to leave plain 
definitely behind.  It will leave me behind too.


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