TeX for the confused

Welcome to my page to explain a few terms to users completely unfamiliar with TeX and TeX-like programs. Click this to go to my main TeX page.

Who is this page for?

This page tries to help people not accustomed to a lot of computer terms to understand what TeX is about. It assumes that you have some computer experience, to be specific, it assumes that you have used a word processor like Appleworks, Wordperfect, Microsoft Word etc. It also does not try to be technically perfect.

What is Typesetting?

A type is a way characters look. Most people call that a font. Type-setting is the process of putting characters (of a certain type) in their correct place (layout) on paper or screen.

What is Editing?

Editing is changing text. If you are typing away on your computer you are almost always editing. If you type an email message, you are editing the content of that message, you are editing the address to send the message to, the subject line, etc. It is all editing.

What is Word processing?

Editing in a word processor is often rich. You can select the text and make it bold or slanted, or both. What you are doing at such a moment is often called formatting, because you change the format of your text. One could say you are influencing the type that is used for displaying your text and the layout of that text. And that is what formatting is. Formatting is influencing the typesetting. Think of it as two different types of changes. We call changing "foo" to "bar" in your text `editing'. We call changing "foo" to "foo" and increase the distance between lines `formatting'. In the world of word processing `editing' is both, and `formatting' is part of editing. In a more strict computer world, formatting is not part of editing, it is a separate activity. The different use of those words in different settings will be confusing if you encounter the different way of using the word for the first time.

What is an Editor?

An editor is a computer program that lets you edit (change) files by taking your behaviour (e.g. key strokes) as input. In fact, a word processor is a kind of rich editor, because you cannot only change the text content but also the text layout. In computer terms, an editor is a program that can change unformatted (plain) text files. There is no layout, no fonts, nothing like that. There is just text, words, characters, sentences, etc.

More on word processors

A word processor could be compared to a motor home. It is both a car and a house. It is good at neither (a normal car will have a better drive performance than your motor home and your house will be more comfortable than the motor home), but the combination is kind of neat. Specialized editors often are more powerful than editors that are part of a combination setup like a word processor. Specialized typesetters are normally more powerful than what the typesetter in a word processor can do. One major reason for people to use TeX is that it can produce the best looking output on the planet. Another reason is often that for very large documents, the word processors do not work very well or are not particularly efficient. In terms of the car analogy, if you want to have the best car and the best home, better not use the package deal.

Using TeX means saying goodbye to your motor home and learning to live with a separate home and car. Which can be difficult if a motor home is all that you know. This is why encountering TeX when you are only used to word processors like Microsoft Word can be frustrating.


A word processor these days operates along the lines of WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get. Now, this is often not perfectly true, especially when the way print output is generated differs from the way screen output is generated (only on the Apple Mac both are the same so the Mac enable programs that are true WYSIWYG, on other system like Windows it is always up to the application). WYSIWYG is great, but there are limitations in terms of that changing visible aspects is not always the most efficient way to work. I am not going to explain that here (it goes too far), just remember that WYSIWYG is also kind of neat, but sometimes has drawbacks or needs serious complex workarounds inside the word processors to be efficient for the user. People who use TeX often learn to like the separation of content and format so much that they experience it as a bonus but also often they are unaware of all the complex support built in to modern word processors to cope with the problem. (Actually, most word processor users are unaware of 95% of what the word processor can do).

What is a program?

A program is an automated way to use inputs (files, user input, etc.) to create outputs (files, displayed or printed material, etc.). An editor is a program that uses your keystrokes as input and produces a file as output. TeX is a program. Basically it takes one file containing plain text (which consists of the content you are writing combined with special words that tell TeX to do certain formatting jobs) and turns in into another file, for instance a PDF file (PDF is the Portable Document Format, a type of file that can be previewed and printed on most computer systems) that contains the beautifully laid out end result.

Click this to go to my main TeX page.