The TeX Typesetting System

We typeset books and journals using TeX, a system that is superior to many other leading typesetting systems. Due to its flexible nature, it can be modified in many ways. Unlike other typesetting systems such as Quark Express and InDesign, TeX is not a WYSIWSYG-program (What You See Is What You Get). On the contrary, TeX deals with encoded, plain text files. TeX translates these codes into a graphic result that can be saved as a pdf file. The user can increase the functionality of the program by defining his own codes. Using these specific definitions, we have expanded our own typesetting system extensively.


TeX was developed by the mathematician and computer scientist Donald Knuth at Stanford University in the early eighties. TeX has many applications, but—due to the fact that Knuth developed TeX especially for typesetting mathematical formulas—it is the unparalleled word processor for sciences. TeX has a less prominent place in book typography than one might expect considering the typographical results it produces. This is probably caused by its specialist nature; TeX is a complex system that can be used to its full extent only after extensive study.

Advantage 1: plain text

TeX stands out from the conventional typesetting systems in several ways. First, TeX processes encoded plain text files. This enables us to carry out automatic operations easily. With our ACE system for instance, we are able to adjust the text files with numerous find-and-replace routines. We can also take advantage of the plain text format during the conversion to other formats.

Advantage 2: logical markup

TeX is a markup language. Because it can be programmed, we can apply a markup that tells us something about the structure rather than the layout of the text. Headings are marked with heading-encodings, quotations with quotation-encodings, enumerations with enumeration-encodings and so on. Depending on the nature of the publication, we define the graphic translation of the encodings for headings, quotations, enumerations, etc. in a separate TeX document, the so-called layout. The separation of form and content ensures that a change in a definition made in the layout applies to all occurrences of a code in the entire publication. This advantage comes into play when a publication is part of a series: since we use the same layout file for each volume, uniformity is guaranteed.

Advantage 3: fixed standard

TeX is a fixed language. After TeX had been sufficiently tested, Knuth terminated its development. By doing this he ensured that a text file made in 1990 can be processed by TeX thirty years later in the exact same way, for example when a reprint is needed.

Advantage 4: extensibility

TeX can be extended in every possible way. This might seem to contradict the previously mentioned fixed standard, but appearances are deceptive in this case. The TeX language is fixed, but since TeX is a programming language, users can increase its functionality. A collection of definitions that extend TeX’s functionality is called a macro package. Over the course of time, many macro packages have been designed to make TeX suitable for many purposes, varying from typesetting chemical formulas to foreign languages and even music.

Limitations of TeX

In order to typeset a book, we label the structure of a book by firstly applying codes. Later on, we define the graphical meaning of these codes in the layout. Defining graphical meaning is rather time consuming. TeX is therefore most useful for books with a repetitive structure, such as academic publications, reference books and novels. With a repetitive structure, definitions can be re-used to their full extent. Books and magazines that demand a different layout for each page should rather be set in a WYSIWYG-program. In these kinds of publications, the typesetter will want to place the items on each page manually. Although this is possible in TeX as well, it is very expensive due to the amount of programming required.