LaTeX: Text markup for humans
written almost 6 years ago
LaTeX (pronounced lay'tek) is a set of TeX macros focused on making TeX simple to use for the most frequent tasks of academics; writing articles, letters, and books. It predates HTML, MathML, and other XML-based text markup languages. It also has a different focus: it's centered on human usability rather than the ease with which a machine can parse it. So where reading and writing HMTL is a kick in the head, LaTeX is a relaxing scalp massage.
LaTeX (and TeX) does its best to separate text content from typesetting and layout. Rather than specify some text should be italicized, you mark it to be emphasized. Depending on how you configure the document, the way the text is emphasized (italics, boldface, etc.) may be easily changed all at once for the entire document. This makes having a consistent style simple. LaTeX also makes it simple to refer to sections, chapters, page numbers, and even items in numbered lists without having to go back manually adjust them when you make a change to your document. Large documents can easily be split into separate files that are easier to work with, and mathematical expressions are about as simple and intuitive to write in TeX as on paper.
Because LaTeX is built on TeX -- which is a Turing-complete language -- it can also be extended and customized. This turns out to be very useful in practice; if you find yourself repeating some particular word, phrase, or markup frequently you can create a simple shorthand rather than type it many times.
A small amount of boilerplate markup at the beginning and end of a text file is frequently enough to get started. The one pit I've seen people fall into is when they try to specify how LaTeX should lay things out on a page instead of letting LaTeX handle it. Although there are solutions, such as Beamer, for making presentation slides with LaTeX that is not something I can recommend as strongly as using LaTeX for its intended purpose.
The best way to get started is to take one of the many example documents that come with LaTeX and adapt it to your own needs. There are plenty of resources for figuring out how to do more involved things as you find you need them. In addition to recommending LaTeX, I strongly recommend Leslie Lamport's book, "LaTeX: A Document Preparation System" if you enjoy paper. There are also plenty of online LaTeX resources and the TeX User's Group (www.tug.org) is a great place to get started. LaTeX has a lot of documentation thanks to its long history (it was first developed in the 1980s) and, unlike many commercial word processors, you do not need to worry about your old documents being unreadable when upgrading -- everything you write is stored in plain text files you can open with any text editor.
2 out of 2 users found the following review helpful.
Did this review help you?