What Is the LaTeX System? (An Overview)
  • 3-minute read
  • 28th December 2018

What Is the LaTeX System? (An Overview)

In the context of academic writing, the word “LaTeX” usually refers to the document preparation system.* This system is common in the sciences, computing, and engineering subjects. But what exactly is this system? And how does it work? Check out our guide to find out.

What Is LaTeX?

LaTeX (pronounced “lay-tech”) isn’t quite like Microsoft Word, where the formatted text you see on screen is what you get when you print out a document. Instead, LaTeX is a plain text system.

Formatting a LaTeX document therefore involves using markup tags (i.e., commands in the text that control how the document will appear). These markup tags also control the structure of the document and provide a simple way to insert and format mathematical formulae. Once written, you can export the .tex file produced to create a pre-typeset document.

Creating a LaTeX Document

How, then, do you create a .tex file? Technically, since LaTeX uses plain text, you can do it in any text editor. However, most dedicated LaTeX editors come with a preview option so that you can see how your document will look while writing it. And we recommend using one of these editors.

LaTeX Base, for example.
LaTeX Base, for example.

Whichever editor you choose, you can simply type up your document as usual. However, you’ll also need to add markup tags to apply formatting and to structure your paper. For instance:

Markup

This “section” tag tells the document to begin a new numbered section in a paper. The text in the curly brackets, meanwhile, will become the title of that section. We’d therefore need to apply this tag wherever we wanted to begin a new section in the document.

Common Markup Tags

There are many LaTeX tags and commands. Common examples include:

Markup Tag

Function

Example

documentclass

Defines document type (e.g., article, book)

documentclass{article}
title

Sets the document title

title{How to Prepare a LaTeX Document}
author

Sets the author name to be displayed

author{Barry Rushden}
date

Sets the document date

date{November 2018)
begin

Starts a new environment in the document (i.e., the style for a passage of text)

begin{document}
end

Ends a document environment

end{document}
maketitle

Adds a title page to the document

maketitle
section

Begins and sets the title for a new numbered section

section{Structuring a Document}
subsection

Begins and sets the title for a new numbered subsection

subsection{The Introduction}

Some of these, such as the “documentclass” tag, are used in every LaTeX document. Other tags are optional. Try using some the tags above in a practice document to see how they work.

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* May not be true if you are studying the commercial use of Hevea brasiliensis.

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