Why would I want to use LaTeX?

Every LaTeX user founds her- or himself at one point or the other explaining why she or he uses LaTeX, defending it against the accusation it was too complicated (well, it can be…) and struggling to explain what the benefits are. The last point gets harder and harder, especially if you’re talking to an experienced Word et.al. user[ref]There is also Adobe InDesign, but I’ve never talked to anyone who has used it. Seems to be something for professionals…[/ref] who knows how to use logical markup, how to automatically create a table of contents and so forth. Or wait: it doesn’t.

Well, the automatic creation of the table of contents really is not the best reason for recommending LaTeX. One can automate lots of things in LaTeX but that does not concern us here.

The typesetting of maths is often mentioned when the strengths of LaTeX are discussed. But: mathematicians and physicians very often use LaTeX anyway and every other person does not have the needs to typeset maths. So this is not a very convincing argument.

You can often read one of the strengths of LaTeX would be that you could concentrate entirely on the content of your document and can let the layout be layout. That’s not entirely true and it is especially not true if you’re a beginner with LaTeX and even less true if you have very specific non-standard layout needs. I’ll discuss later what is actually meant by this point.

This all sounds as if I actually don’t want to recommend LaTeX. And I don’t. The decision is yours. I simply want to point to some of the real strengths. And don’t get me wrong: the learning curve of LaTeX is very steep. Especially in the beginning it can be very frustrating. Why it could be worth anyway you’re free to decide for yourself.

Edit 2013/04/23: if you like some visual arguments — here you go: Visual comparison between LaTeX and Word output.


I’ll be going briefly over the following topics:

  • paragraph building (1)
  • kerning (2)
  • character protrusion (3)
  • font expansion (4)
  • the need to use logical markup (5)

The first four points are typographic ones and if you’re not interested in typography then I’m afraid there’s only one possible reason why you would be interested in LaTeX: you have to typeset an awful lot of math. But then you’re probably using LaTeX already.

(1) Paragraph Building

Paragraph building is one of the real strengths of LaTeX or rather the underlying program TeX. When you’re writing a paragraph TeX will try quite a number of different possibilities to typeset the paragraph. It will try to avoid widow and orphan lines. It will test several possibilities for linebreaks inside the paragraph to find the best way, avoiding too large or too small interword spaces. It will try to avoid several lines after one each other all ending with a hyphenated word. While this might not be perfect it works pretty well. And although the code is available for more than thirty years to my knowledge it is still the only program doing these things.

(2) Kerning

Kerning is actually a font property and a good font comes with kerning tables. A real typographer probably adjusts these tables to his needs and wishes. That does not need to concern us here. TeX is able to use the kerning values of these tables and uses them you having to concern yourself with it. I recently learned that Word shall have that feature (but disabled in the default setting!), so this might not be the strongest point for LaTeX. I don’t know about OOo/Libreoffice.

(3) Character Protrusion

Character protrusion is also called margin kerning. To quote one of LaTeX’s addons[ref]Actually they’re called packages[/ref] (which in turn took this quote from Hàn Thê Thành’s thesis:):

Margin kerning is the adjustments of the characters at the margins of a typeset text. A simplified employment of margin kerning is hanging punctuation. Margin kerning is needed for optical alignment of the margins of a typeset text, because mechanical justification of the margins makes them look rather ragged. Some characters can make a line appear shorter to the human eye than others. Shifting such characters by an appropriate amount into the margins would greatly improve the appearance of a typeset text.

Since pdfTeX (written by Hàn Thê Thành) is available LaTeX can support this as well. This alone makes it a tool of choice if you care about typographic features.

(4) Font Expansion

Again I’ll quote the addon, i.e. Hàn Thê Thành:

Composing with font expansion is the method to use a wider or narrower variant of a font to make interword spacing more even. A font in a loose line can be substituted by a wider variant so the interword spaces are stretched by a smaller amount. Similarly, a font in a tight line can be replaced by a narrower variant to reduce the amount that the interword spaces are shrunk by. There is certainly a potential danger of font distortion when using such manipulations, thus they must be used with extreme care. The potentiality to adjust a line width by font expansion can be taken into consideration while a paragraph is being broken into lines, in order to choose better breakpoints.

If you want to see the effects of (3) and (4) open the microtype manual with your Adobe Reader at page four. The Adobe reader is not unimportant here: not every pdf reader can demonstrate the effects. You’ll see what I mean once you’ve opened the pdf.

Points (3) and (4) make point (1) (i.e., paragraph building) even more powerful.

(5) The Need to Use Logical Markup

This is the last point I’ll be talking about and this is the point that is meant when people say LaTeX enables you to concentrate on the contents of your document and let the layout be layout (at least for the time being).

Unlike the common WYSIWYG[ref]Let’s not discuss why there can’t be a real WYSIWYG for document typesetting anyway.[/ref] typesetting program LaTeX forces you to use a logical structure in your document. While in a OOo document you are free to decide if you mark a heading as a heading or simply type a line larger and with a bold font you have no choice in LaTeX[ref]Well, of course you have a choice, as always, but it’s much more of a pain in the ass here…[/ref]. And this not only holds for headings but is also true for quotes, citations, displayed math equations, chemical formulae, …

Once you’ve got used to it and learned how to write your own simple markup commands — and I believe this is the most scary point for most beginners[ref]No tables must be, but that’s for another post[/ref] — you’ll find that indeed you can focus on the contents of your document. You can forget about most layout questions until you’ve finished. You do not say: “write this word in italics” but “emphasize this word”; you don’t say “use small caps for this acronym” but “this is an acronym” and so forth. Of course you’ll need to give layout some thought later on. But you have a large amount of flexibility if you were really consequent with a logical, i.e., semantically meaningful, markup.


I hope I have given you something new to think about if you’re trying to decide whether you should use LaTeX or not.

I also hope I haven’t told you completely wrong facts. If I have I hope you’ll tell me so I have the chance to correct them.

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