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I want to collect the most common mistakes, misconceptions, pitfalls, etc that (La)TeX and Friends users make. Please one answer for each mistake, misconception, pitfall, etc.

I am only interested in more technical, objective cases rather than psychological, social, subjective cases.

From this complete infinite list of technical and objective cases, we can have a reference how to teach newbies much better directly or indirectly via writing a good book.

The technical and object cases are, for example, as follows.

  • Beginners sometimes use $\huge E=mc^2$ with the hope they will get a huge formula. It actually does not produce the expected result. The correct way is \huge $E=mc^2$.
  • Beginner sometimes use longtable inside table because they assume longtable is the longer version of tabular which is able to be sandwiched in table.
  • etc.
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Not reading an introduction and package documentation. – Marc van Dongen Oct 21 '13 at 11:36
Aside from answering questions on this site when I don't have a clue what I'm talking about? – Jubobs Oct 21 '13 at 12:25
There is a similar Community poll on meta: meta.tex.stackexchange.com/a/1596/2693 – Alan Munn Oct 21 '13 at 13:21
I don't really see how this can get sensible answers, I voted to close as "too broad". As @AlanMunn says the question on meta is perhaps a more suitable location (although it is not really a meta question about the site either) – David Carlisle Oct 21 '13 at 13:53
Isn't this a sort of "everyone rant here" question? – marczellm Oct 22 '13 at 21:28

44 Answers 44

Judging by questions on this site - which I admit are probably not representative of beginners as a whole but which are, at the very least, of special interest to readers likely to peruse this answer - I would say that one basic mistake, which leads to a number of others, is not stepping back and getting a general sense of the capabilities of TeX & friends. I don't mean the details, but the 'big picture'. For example,

  • TeX & friends are good tools for typesetting text, mathematics and bibliographies;
  • TeX & friends are great for automatically ensuring consistent layout, accurate references and cross-references;
  • TeX & friends are not the best tools to create a database, manage a spreadsheet or draw elaborate 3D scenes with accurate perspective and lighting;
  • TeX & friends are not good replacements for tools such as sed, (g)awk and grep, although many editors provide much of their functionality;
  • neither TeX nor friends are good replacements for a sheepdog;
  • TeX & friends make at best indifferent tea.

In particular, TeX & friends are much better than human beings - and much better than many other programmes - at the things they do well. They are not generally good - and typically much poorer than alternative programmes - at the things they are not intended to do.

One key strategy for getting the most out of TeX & friends is to use the right tool for the right job. Some questions boil down to requests for TeX solutions to the problem of brewing the perfect cuppa. This is a perfectly reasonable aim but the best answer involves advising a non-TeX solution. a perfectly reasonable goal requiring a non-TeX solution

Other questions essentially ask for TeX-based cat-herding solutions. The best answer in this case involves recommending against adopting the goal set out in the question. an entirely unreasonable goal which has no reasonable solution

However, these types of answers are rarely appreciated and frequently interpreted as either lacking in imagination ('I don't believe it is not possible/advisable') or as admissions of TeX's failure to rise to the needs of twenty-first century users ('Super Programme can make tea while simultaneously sheering sheep, sending a letter to my gran and paying the gas bill'). This is a shame since these really are the best answers in these cases and appreciating TeX's limitations, as well as its strengths, is key to using it effectively.

[That is, I am extremely sceptical of solutions of this kind.]

Cup of tea is from openclipart.org.

'Like Juggling While Herding Cats' is by Robin Catesby and available here under this CC licence.

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Several days ago I taught my students how to plot some functions that are either algebraic or transcendental. As usual I introduced them to PSTricks for the sake of its full support for PostScript language.

All functions are expressed in infix form. Some of my students got confused with the algebraic key. They assumed that this key must be enabled via algebraic=true whenever they plot algebraic functions and set it to false whenever they plot transcendental functions. The code they wrote is more and less as follows.

\def\AlgeFunc{x^2-4} % an example of algebraic function
\def\TransFunc{sin(x)} % an example of transcendental function


Actually the algebraic key was created by PSTricks maintainers to allow users to switch from postfix expression (the default in PSTricks) to the infix one or vice versa by setting this key to either false (default) or true.

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I'm a little late to that party, but ho—that's good… – Sean Allred Jun 19 '14 at 12:14

One mistake newbies can make is that of having text (in math mode) that extents outside then range of the document.

For example when trying to define Abstract Data Types with many sorts and constructors,the whole line would go until some of the text is just spilling over to the outside of the margin.

One solution would be to use the landscape or geometry package and choose margins that accommodate the work

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The first error for many TeX newbies is not backslashing figure brackets in formulae, when it should be backslashed. So they get $\min {x, 100 - x}$ or even $min {x, 100 - x}$ instead of $\min \{\, x, 100 - x\,\}$.

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Attempting to use \ifeven...\else...\fi that actually does not exist. Note that only \ifodd...\else...\fi is available. Probably Knuth likes odd things.

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Is this really a beginner's mistake? It took me quite a while to get to the point of using conditionals and, even then, I was using the ifthen package rather than TeX-like \if and friends! Until I read your answer, I'd never even heard of \ifodd. – cfr Sep 21 '14 at 18:32
@cfr: The word "beginner" has a relative meaning, so does the word "relative". :-) – kiss my armpit Sep 21 '14 at 18:41
Fair enough. I'm quite happy to admit I'm a pre-beginner who hopes one day to aspire to the status of an actual beginner ;). – cfr Sep 21 '14 at 20:33

Using floating environments (table and figure) in beamer.

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The beamer class redefines figure and table to be non-floating, so at least those are not the right examples to use in this case. I personally find it quite convenient to be able to copy and paste tables and figure definitions from my main document when preparing the presentation without having to worry about changing their names. – jja Mar 27 '14 at 16:30

Forgetting to add fontenc package when using accent letters.

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Inconsistent syntax causes confusion

As there is a bit inconsistent syntax between length and counter, some users get confused with whether or not they need \.

They often wrongly type \setcounter{\countername}{<value>} rather than \setcounter{countername}{<value>}


\setlength{lengthname}{<dimen>} rather than \setlength{\lengthname}{<dimen>}.

Who made such an inconsistent syntax?

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I still don't understand \bf vs \textbf{}. When do I use \centering vs \begin{center} \end{center}? LaTeX has many great features; a clear syntax is NOT one of them. – Canageek Oct 24 '13 at 21:00
@Canageek: I need a consistent syntax rather than a clear one. – kiss my armpit Oct 24 '13 at 21:03
Good point, those are clear, just not consistent. – Canageek Oct 24 '13 at 22:40
And it gets worse when considering packages! A lot of packages provide similar features with completely different syntaxes. This is scary, especially for beginners, but even experienced users probably have to look-up the documentation of a package to avoid errors. – Bakuriu Oct 25 '13 at 9:44
@Bakuriu: PSTricks' packages are some of them. – kiss my armpit Oct 25 '13 at 9:58

The newbies don't use enough packages to get their work done. The best example is %, the siunitx package provides sophisticated way to print percentages but new users don't use it.

Another major mistake which they do is, they don't use updated distributions of TeXLive or MikTeX or update the packages atleast.

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Another common mistake made by LaTeX newbies is to think that the \title command typesets the title and forget to use \maketitle to do that.

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Personally I think, it is not to care if a given solution is deprecated. So the nag package, as "old habits die hard" and those are too much widespread all over the web.

Last but not least, not to search tex.stackexchange.com which helped me more than a hundred times so far. It helps to distinguish high value answers from bad code snippets in some boards.

I think anything else has been said, already.

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The mistake I always make, even to this day, is forgetting that newlines have syntactic meaning in LaTeX. I'm so used to using empty lines to delimit my text that I do it automatically, and then end up with ugly text (especially when indentation of the first line is enabled).

The other mistake I always make is forgetting when some command requires arguments, like \array, and then it automatically eats up the first thing after it, leading to the "why isn't it rendering the first element of my matrix?"

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Trying to convince people that LateX is the best "program" to make your things done in a stylish way. Resulting in two possible reactions... 1) being called, mailed or texted a lot (and I mean a lot) about "how can I do this, how can I do that, is it possible to ... (so I send them to this site.) 2) I can do the same things in WORD... :-(

I don't know which one is the worst...

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  1. Having a LaTeX problem
  2. Googling it
  3. Opening a tex.SE link with an apparently relevant title
  4. Scrolling directly to the top rated answer(s)
  5. Pretending to understand the OP's question itself without even having to bother reading it (especially if it is long)
  6. (Only sometimes) Learn something new from the thread and possibly applying it in own work
  7. Voting the answer(s) that solved his/her problem (and probably the unread question too)
  8. Feeling grateful to tex.SE website and community
  9. Facing another LaTeX problem (Go To 2)
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