What is LaTeX?

Zink Typography uses LaTeX for typesetting books and other publications. LaTeX is a macro package, designed by Leslie Lamport in 1984 in order to provide a more convenient way of working with TeX. TeX is a programming language for typesetting documents, designed especially for that purpose by Donald Knuth from 1978 onwards.

Although these days it is possible to produce nice documents using programs like Microsoft Word, LaTeX provides a plethora of professional possibilities that are indispensable for an optimal readability of texts. Below we give a number of important examples.


Text processors work according to the principle 'what you see is what you get' (WYSIWYG). This offers advantages, but when working on large documents such as books it is needlessly complex and time-consuming. LaTeX, on the contrary, employs plain text enriched by special codes that clarify the structure and lay-out, which LaTeX translates to a completely typeset pdf document. Although for working with LaTeX you have to master a large amount of commands and codes, this approach offers the possibility of far-reaching automation.

That is exactly what we make use of: we have developed software that can convert Word documents to LaTeX code. The same software can then apply a specific combination from our styles library, after which we can produce a printer-ready pdf document. This way of working ensures high quality, great flexibility and fast delivery, without the costs rising high.

Justification and hyphenation

The general look and readability of a text are highly dependent on the way in which a text is justified and hyphenated. For these tasks LaTeX uses the highly sophisticated algorithms of TeX, which optimize justification and hyphenation for an entire paragraph. Word and other text processors are in this respect much inferior, as they work on one line at a time only. This results among others in irregular spacing and a high number of hyphenated words. In order to clarify this, we have typeset a small paragraph in Microsoft Word 2008 (Mac), Adobe InDesign CS4 and LaTeX; the result clearly shows that LaTeX is superior not only to the text processor Word, but also to the DTP industry standard InDesign. LaTeX needs only half the number of hyphenations whereas the variation in word spaces is still significantly smaller than for Word or InDesign. Lines that show too big word spaces do not occur using LaTeX.

A comparison of the performances of MS Word 2008 (Mac), Adobe InDesign CS4 and LaTeX. Click on the figure to see the entire document.

[Garamond Premier Pro, 12 pt]

Statistics on word spacing in the comparison document above.


Some letters clash with one another if they are printed next to each other. Familiar examples are the combinations 'fl' and 'fi', in which the f touches the dot of the i or the top of the l. For that reason, many typefaces contain special characters for these combinations: ligatures. LaTeX automatically detects which ligatures are supported by a typeface, and uses them. Word and other text processors do not do this, and the user has to find and replace all occurrences of these combinations him- or herself.

MS Word (top) does not automatically use ligatures. LaTeX (bottom) automatically uses all supported ligatures.

[Minion Pro, 24 pt]

Old-style and lining numbers

Numbers can be used in a text in many different ways. In a table or any other kind of regular ordering of numbers it is convenient if all digits take up the same amount of space and are equally high. In running text, however, it is much more pleasant if the numbers, just like normal lowercase letters, protrude above and below the line - that provides a much more natural look. In the first case, the numbers are called proportional lining numbers, in the second case old-style or hanging numbers. Decent typefaces contain both, but unfortunately, text processors do not employ them (unless a typeface accidentally only contains old-style numbers). LaTeX can use all types of numbers, and offers the possibility of switching as you like between all variants.

MS Word (top) only uses lining numbers, whereas LaTeX (bottom) supports the use of both lining and hanging numbers.

[Myriad, 32 pt]

Real smallcaps

For titles, headers and abbreviations one often uses smallcaps: capitals that are just as high as normal lowercase letters. Although professional typefaces contain special smallcap characters, they are not used by text processing programs. Instead, they scale down capitals in order to create fake smallcaps. The resulting fake smallcaps have weird proportions and often come out too big.

MS Word (top) uses scaled capitals instead of real smallcaps. LaTeX (bottom) uses the real smallcaps provided in the typeface.

[Garamond Premier Pro, 32 pt]


Kerning is placing letters closer together or further apart if the form of the letters necessitates it. This results in a much more balanced spacing, enhancing readability. Letters such as the T, the V, the W and the A need such kerning. Professionally designed typefaces contain kerning tables that indicate the right amount of kerning for all letter pairs that need adjustment. As do most text processors, Word ignores these tables - Latex uses them automatically.

MS Word (top) uses the wrong, average kerning for the letter pairs Ta, AV and VA. LaTeX (below) uses the right kerning as prescribed in the font's kerning tables.

[Garamond Premier Pro regular en italic, 32 pt]

Rare and historical letters and ligatures

Using LaTeX, one can also make automated use of the extra possibilities offered by professional typefaces. Historical letter forms, such as the long s, but also additional ligatures (for instance the 'st' combination) can all be used automatically in LaTeX. Word does not even offer access to these possibilities, and only rarely is it possible to enter them manually.

MS Word: text without historical letters and ligatures

[Garamond Premier Pro italic en regular, 16 pt]

LaTeX can automatically use rare and historical letters and ligatures

[Garamond Premier Pro italic en regular, 16 pt]

[Skia, 24 pt]

A number of examples has been taken from Dario Taraborelli's excellent article The beauty of LaTeX

De TeX/LaTeX mascotte, getekend door Duane Bibby (www.ctan.org)