In Praise of… LaTeX

The summer of 2003 was a glorious one in Fife: blazing sunshine, warm-but-not-too-warm, a lovely fresh breeze blowing in off of the North Sea.

At least, I'm told it was glorious. I was stuck in room 226, preparing two versions of my PhD thesis as my supervisor had decided a copy with narrower margins would make for more impact. Instead of strolling up and down West Sands, I spent several months locked in battle with LaTeX.

When I left academia a few years later, I promised myself I'd never touch the cursed language again.

But then I met Word

OK, LaTeX is messy. But it is not a patch on the horror-show that is typesetting maths in Word. Which, it seems, publishers prefer.

Gah!

For example, if I wanted to type $\vec{AB}$ in LaTeX, I would simply type:

$\vec{AB}$

The dollar sign says "start maths mode", \vec means 'put an arrow over the thing that follows', {AB} is what to put the arrow over, and the second dollar says "back to normal now."

In Word (at least on a Mac), you need to click on Insert, then Equation1, type AB, select the letter, click on Equation Tools, then Accent, then the arrow. On a laptop, that's an absolute pain.

(For the sake of truth, I should point out that typing \vec in Word's equation mode does give you an arrow -- but you still need to manoeuvre your cursor back into the correct place and type the letters.)

Flow

LaTeX, once you get through the steepish learning curve, (and as long as you don't care about margins) means you can type equations as normal text, without having to click anywhere. You might get them wrong -- and I concede that there's a debugging step that goes into compiling any LaTeX document -- but I find that separating the production from the formatting makes for quicker work.

Customisation

I have macros defined in Word to save me some of the trouble of... using Word. But they're nothing compared to the flexibility of LaTeX. I have shortcuts for all sorts of things: put this in a bracket. $\pi$ over something. Make this a column vector. Anything with a complex syntax I've had to do more than twice has a shortcut - and it means I can blaze through a blog post or a piece of work in half the time it takes me in Word.

It's just text

I'm a fan of things being Just Text, like HTML and Markdown. My Word documents today will likely be unreadable (or at least, not easily readable) in 15 years' time - but I could pull up my thesis files and compile them to get the same result today without any problem at all.

Conclusion

LaTeX is marvellous. It gives you remarkable freedom over what you can typeset (it's not just maths, it's a proper language - you pull all sorts of crazy shenanigans given the time and inclination). It fits my workflow just right2.

And I wish publishers accepted work, even just equations, written in it. Pretty please?

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. IT'S NOT A SODDING EQUATION, IT'S AN EXPRESSION, THANK YOU VERY MUCH []
  2. I'm aware that this is the result of having done lots of work in it, rather than an intrinsic property of LaTeX []

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up for the Sum Comfort newsletter and get a free e-book of mathematical quotations.

No spam ever, obviously.

Where do you teach?

I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

On twitter