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I just spotted someone use \newcommand* in an answer and realised that I'd never quite sorted out in my head what the star (asterisk) was there for.

(This one is practically impossible to search for on the internet so this is a good place to record the answer!)

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so much for a self-documenting system, huh? texdoc fail =) i thought it can do that. –  Dima Aug 4 '10 at 18:14
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4 Answers

up vote 154 down vote accepted

A bit of background first. When Knuth wrote TeX, he realised that most macros would not need to absorb more than one paragraph as an argument. As a result, a good way to test for errors such as a missing } is to forbid macros to accept paragraph tokens (either those generated by blank lines or explicit \par tokens). So he created \def for definitions which cannot take a paragraph token, and the \long prefix to allow them to:

\def\examplea#1{% #1 cannot contain \par
\long\def\exampleb#1{% #1 can contain \par

When LaTeX was written, Lamport created \newcommand as a wrapper around \def with various bits of error checking. He found that paragraph tokens can pop up in odd places. So he decided that \newcommand would be 'long'. When the LaTeX team took over for LaTeX2e, they decided that you would need to add the modifier * to prevent this:

\newcommand{\examplea}[1]{% #1 can contain \par
\newcommand*{\exampleb}[1]{% #1 cannot contain \par

Most of the time, \newcommand* is the best choice as you want the error-checking that it provides. That is why examples given by experienced LaTeX users normally use this form, rather than just \newcommand.

The same behaviour is seen with \newenvironment:

\newenvironment{examplea}[1]{% #1 can contain \par
\newenvironment*{exampleb}[1]{% #1 cannot contain \par

This works by defining \examplea and \endexamplea more-or-less using \newcommand, and \exampleb and \endexampleb more-or-less using \newcommand*. As a result, the 'end' macros have the same 'long' status as the 'begin' ones, even though they never take arguments. (Note that this does not affect what can go into the body of the environment, only the arguments at the start.) Environments are covered in more detail in What is the difference between \newenvironment and \newenvironment*?.

For LaTeX3, we've decided to take a somewhat hybrid approach. If you use xparse for defining document commands, they are only 'long' if you ask for it:

\NewDocumentCommand\examplea{m}{% #1 cannot contain \par
\NewDocumentCommand\examplab{+m}{% #1 can contain \par

(We've decided on + to represent a long argument). On the other hand, for internal use it is normally best to accept paragraph tokens, and to leave the filtering to the user interface level.

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So what’s the common/best practice for macros without arguments? –  Konrad Rudolph Aug 5 '10 at 9:41
A very good question. I favour making macros long only when needed, so use \newcommand*/\def for macros with no arguments. However, it does not matter for the application of the macro. One place it does matter is when you do an \ifx test: identical macros with no arguments but where one is long and the other is not do not evaluate to 'identical' as far a TeX is concerned. –  Joseph Wright Aug 5 '10 at 10:00
Thanks. But I’ve just noticed that it cannot (easily?) be used with \WithSuffix or \expandafter. :-( Or is there an obvious way around this? –  Konrad Rudolph Aug 5 '10 at 10:55
I don't know about \WithSuffix (I'd use xparse instead), but \expandafter\newcommand\expandafter*\csname some-name\endcsname{} works fine. Remember that we go past one token with \expandafter. –  Joseph Wright Aug 5 '10 at 11:07
We're hoping that xparse means most people have less basic TeX to learn :-) –  Joseph Wright Aug 6 '10 at 11:24
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From here: "Using the starred version of \newcommand means that the arguments of the defined command cannot contain a blank line or \par. This makes it a lot easier to spot runaway arguments."

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In the Latex2e for authors (usrguide.pdf) I found section 3.4 relating about all "defin-y" commands:

All the above five ‘defining commands’ now have *-forms that are usually the better form to use when defining commands with arguments, unless any of these arguments is intended to contain whole paragraphs of text. Moreover, if you ever do find yourself needing to use the non-star form then you should ask whether that argument would not better be treated as the contents of a suitably defined environment.

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According to the Companion:

[\newcommand*] defines a [command], that is not, in TeX terms, long. This means that the newly defined command does not accept empty lines or \par.

This is also the default behaviour of \def, while the unstarred version is actually equivalent to \long\def.

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