LaTeX and Word

Is there something I can do in LaTeX that it is impossible to do in Word?

I once asked one of the nurses I used to work with if I could buy her a latex nurses’ uniform, but I suspect this isn’t related, right? :wink:


Impossible or horribly inconvenient? Because mathematical typesetting is horribly inconvenient in Word.

Page layout is horribly inconvenient in Word, at least compared to Quark, Pagemaker, or InDesign. Is LaTeX still around? It originated in the prehistoric ages of computers. Have you considered Quark or InDesign?

Impossible? Probably not? Ridiculously complex? Many things: margin kerning, font expansion, hanging punctuation, fitting text to custom shapes (the ubiquitous circle of text at the beginning of many maths books set with LaTeX), optimal line breaking (LaTeX’s line breaking algorithm was the subject of at least one PhD thesis), typeset mathematics so your eyes don’t bleed, create useful macros, create custom glyphs, have automatic letter pair kerning that actually looks nice, reliable insertion of ligatures, use glyph variants, etc.

Umm, anybody who suggests using Quark or Pagemaker as a replacement for what LaTeX excels at doesn’t know much about LaTeX. And no, LaTeX didn’t originate in the prehistoric ages of computers, it originated in the 1980s. TeX, the underlying typesetting engine, is older but that’s a selling point, not a disadvantage: it’s possibly one of the only remotely complex pieces of “commercial” software that can be reliably be said to be bug free.

I forgot to add, one of LaTeX’s single biggest advantages over MS Word is that LaTeX uses plain text files as opposed to Word’s binary files. With plain text, you can use any of the standard Unix text processing tools like Grep, Awk, Sed, etc. to manipulate the contents of your document and make complex global changes extremely easily. Further, having a plain text format allows you to use standard merging tools in source control systems for collaboratively working on a document without running the risk of somebody fucking up and ruining all your work without being able to roll back changes to how the document appeared last week, for instance.

That’s the one thing I’ve seen said about LaTeX that I understand.

Why do you say page layout is inconvenient in Word?

What kind of complex global changes?

LaTeX advertises itself as giving me a way not to have to worry about what my document looks like. I just give it the content (it is said at their website) and LaTeX does the rest.

Is this true? How does LaTeX do “fitting text to custom shapes” for me without me having to worry about what my document looks like?

Word is a word processor. It was never intended to be a layout program, although it has been enhanced enough that it can be used as such if the tasks aren’t too challenging.

Basically, the data stored by Word is a stream of characters in sequence and much has to be done by the program to handle graphic insertions, columns, etc. The more the program grows, the clumsier it gets, IMHO.

In contrast, page layout programs were designed to locate graphics anywhere on a page, and handle text blocks much like old typesetting programs did. If you have used Pagemaker, Quark or InDesign, you can readily see the difference; if you have not, it’s hard to describe.

Word was originally a text-only word processor; even fonts were foreign to it and graphics were impossible. Pagemaker was originally a graphics based layout program with extensive font handling and graphics as a native concept. Really big difference.

Like I said, in the prehistoric ages of computers. Perhaps your dinosaurs are more recent than mine. :slight_smile: No doubt it has evolved since, although I am surprised to find it is still in use – I thought it was a museum piece. I haven’t seen any publishing-type service using it for 20 years. It’s pretty much Quark vs. InDesign wherever I go, but I admit my paths are in commercial venues, not academia, where it originated.

I got my Master’s in CS in 2004, and did my thesis in LaTeX, as well as another publication (half my thesis, basically). I didn’t have a ton of equations, but did have a few here and there. LaTeX had a number of advantages, in my opinion - some have already been mentioned by others:

  1. It can be manipulated by a plain-text editor, you don’t have a run a heavy program like Word to edit your document.
  2. Since it’s plain text, you can use version control. My advisor and I used a CVS repository to store my thesis and keep track of our changes.
  3. It’s easy to split out chapters/sections into their own files, and include them into a master document. And again, these are just plaintext files.
  4. Content is kept fairly well separated from how it’s rendered. The journal we submitted to had a LaTeX style that they used for all their articles, and it took about 5 minutes to apply that to our document. Additionally, you can feel free to focus on what you’re writing, instead of how it’s getting formatted on the page. (On the other hand, getting things to look exactly how you want can be a bit of a pain, and I had to spend a long time getting everything formatted exactly right for how my school required things. I still find it frustrating that the department didn’t have a standard LaTeX style for theses.)
  5. BibTeX for bibliography was really convenient. Basically, you keep a separate file which contains your bibliography, and in your document you can just reference them.
  6. Graphics can easily be manipulated and replaced just by updating a file in the filesystem - you don’t have to re-import them or anything like that if you get a new graphic, just drop it in on top of where the old one was.
  7. How awesome is it to have a Makefile for your document? Only sort of kidding. :slight_smile: But seriously, having the final product be a PDF from the start, rather than having to export as a separate process is really nice.

I love the way LaTeX sells itself. My dream is being able to type documents in plaintext with light markup, and then append any of a handful of tasteful professionally-designed templates.

Unfortunately, my dabbles in it didn’t quite work that way. The required markup seemed more complicated than I was hoping for and the tools and templates to generate the final output weren’t very user-friendly. Would love an excuse to revisit it, but didn’t seem quite right for me.

Is it possible to describe how to do something in LaTeX, and how to do the same thing in Word, in such a way as to make it clear how LaTeX is better for that than Word? (Excluding math notation. I can stipulate to that.)

I’m just curious. Has anyone worked with both LaTeX and modern layout programs sufficiently to be considered an experienced user of both? Could you contrast them?

I investigated LaTeX long ago, but not enough to compare them. I just can’t imagine having to use a text editor to modify a complex Quark layout.

What is bad about a “heavy program”?

I don’t understand. I regularly do what I think you’re calling “version control” in MSWord. I’m talking about the “track changes” feature set, and it seems very intuitive and useful to me. Is this not the kind of feature you’re talking about, though?

Why would I want to do this?

If I understand this correctly, I think it makes sense. You just told the document “here’s the title, here are chapter headings, here’s the table of context, these are bibliography entries,” and so on, then applied the LaTeX style to it and it’s all ready for publication? That does sound useful… not sure how much time it really saves but maybe that’s because I’ve attempted to have so few things published.

I guess this just doesn’t grab me. I guess I’m interested in how it’s formatted on the page. Does this make me a bad candidate for LaTeX use?

Question: Can BibTeX bibliographies be incorporated into other formats as well? (For example, Word documents?) Word now has a decent citation tracker but it does some funky stuff sometimes. But other commercial citation trackers are freaking expensive.

While I understand each word in the above, I do not understand what they mean together in that order. :wink: How do you have a “final product” without a “separate process” that would count as “exporting” something to something?

Why don’t you just try LaTeX for yourself? It’s quite easy to generate a simple document.

But some things I find simple to do in LaTeX and complex to do in Word are:

  • Keeping track of figure and table numbers. It’s automatic in LaTeX. Basically you insert the \figure command in the appropriate place in the LaTeX source file, with various options (filename of the figure, caption text, where on the page you prefer it to be - top, bottom, on its own page, etc) and LaTeX chooses an appropriate place to insert it. Number references to the figure are automatically generated. Also, references to section numbers, chapter numbers, etc are also automatic.

  • Bibliography. You prepare a BiBTeX file that lists authors, title, etc for each publication, linked to a key. Then you just use the \cite command whenever you want to cite a paper, e.g. “according to \cite{einstein_1905}…”. LaTeX/BiBTeX generates the whole bibliography section automatically, putting the citations in order (whatever order you want), and only including the references you cited. And the best part is, you can just let the BiBTeX file grow over time and keep reusing for all your future papers.

  • Hyperlinks. LaTeX (with the hyperref package) can generate PDF documents with hyperlinks between sections automatically. For example, the text “Figure 2” becomes an active link to figure 2, and “Einstein 1905” becomes an active link to the corresponding entry in the bibliography, etc. Each line in the table of contents becomes a link to the corresponding section, etc. (By the way, the table of contents is generated automatically as well.)

  • Making global changes while keeping the style consistent throughout the document. For example, changing the line spacing after all chapter headings, changing the font style used for section headings, changing all figure captions to a different font size, changing line spacing in all bulleted lists, etc.

  • Splitting documents into multiple sources. This is very useful for long documents, especially if you have different people working on different sections. The top level document mostly consists of formatting commands and links to individual sections; the individual sections can be worked on by different people, and put together by just putting them in the same folder and compiling.

Just how bad are current Word equation editors? I find them adequate for my purposes. I also like MathType.

The problem with LaTeX is that it’s completely unsuitable for composition of long-form, intuitive, real-time manipulation of text strings. I know, it can be done, and I like the idea for marking-up tables and so forth, but for writing an essay about Franco-Austrian literature, with the occasional use of formalized language to describe, say, various semantic systems, I don’t see it.

The paucity of mature WYSIWIG interfaces makes it, IMO, unworkable for manipulating plain text in real time. Especially when so many other tools are available for inserting images of various formalizations used (often frequently) in scholarly texts.

Thumbs down. I like it, though – if I had more than one or two complex formalized “sentences” to express per five pages, I’d think it’s a winner.

ETA LaTeX IS easy – I’d recommend trying it. I’m happy with MathType or Word 2007’s equation editor, but I’m glad I learned enough LaTeX to know how to use it if its use were warranted. It’s basically a neat tool.

All scientific journals in my field (astronomy) accept submissions in LaTeX (or PDF from LaTeX), though many now also accept Word or PDF generated by other programs.

I use LaTeX for all papers and proposals because it’s such a great time-saver. It generates documents that look clean and professional, and consistently formatted throughout, with minimal errors in numbering, references, etc. It saves me from having to generate (and error-check) the bibliography, table of contents, etc.

On the other hand, if you really want an impressive-looking document, LaTeX is not the choice. When our group submits proposals for $50-million projects we don’t use LaTeX for the final product; we hand it over to the publication department where professional designers format it with a typesetting software (I think they use InDesign).