Take the 2-minute tour ×
TeX - LaTeX Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for users of TeX, LaTeX, ConTeXt, and related typesetting systems. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I am new to TeX programming and I have not finished reading the TeXBook yet. I need at a glance tutorial about how a TeX engine reads, processes, and produces its output.

My mental model as a newbie when considering any black box receiving an input stream and producing an output stream is as follows.

The black box

  1. takes a chunk of characters of a constant length,
  2. processes the taken chunk of characters,
  3. save the processed chunk in a file,
  4. does 1, 2, 3 until all input stream of characters gets processed.

Does a TeX engine use the chunk-by-chunk processing mechanism? Or does it do multiple processing from start to finish as follows?

A TeX engine

  1. scans all input stream (in an input file) from start to finish,
  2. does the first expansion.
  3. repeat 1 followed by 2 for the nth expansion until no more expansion possible.
  4. saves the rendered output to a file, for example, in PDF format.

The answer of this question really helps me to learn plain TeX faster than reading the TeXBook.

share|improve this question
I don't know why, but I'm confident it's linear. Just given the time in which TeX was written… –  Sean Allred Feb 3 at 5:26
@SeanAllred: I think it is neither exponential nor sinusoidal as well. –  cyanide-based food Feb 3 at 5:39
The short answer: Yes, TeX does chunk-by-chunk processing (see TeX Book, p 46). The long answer: Read the TeX Book. Remember that there is major disconnect between what is read and what is processed, since expansion could lead large chunks of output. Hence Knuth's reference to TeX's processing as being equivalent to "a living organism" (p 38) with eyes (input), mouth (tokenization) and stomach (processing). –  Werner Feb 3 at 5:46
@Werner When you say "Read the TeX Book. Remember that there is major disconnect between what is read and what is processed," Are you referring to the TeX engine or the poor reader trying to plow through the TeX Book? –  Steven B. Segletes Feb 3 at 11:43
"I am new to TeX programming..." I don't believe you ;-) –  Henri Menke Feb 5 at 13:02

1 Answer 1

up vote 32 down vote accepted

TeX has three modes of operation: (1) Converting the input stream to tokens, (2) expanding the token, (3) executing a complete command (made up of tokens).

In more detail, it first prepares one line of input by stripping off the EOL (OS dependent) and all spaces from the end of the line (usually also tab characters). Then it adds its own endline character (the value of \endlinechar, normally ctrl-M).

It then reads the line one character at a time until it obtains a complete token (generally a single character or a control sequence). This token is passed to stage (2) the macro expansion engine, which expands it (if it can be) or asks for more tokens from stage (1) (if needed for the expansion process) or passes it along to stage (3), the execution process. This process either executes the command, or asks for more tokens from stage (2), which may then have to ask for more tokens from stage (1).

The tokenizing stage converts most characters to a token consisting of a character-code/category-code pair. Since the execution engine is capable of assigning new category codes to a character, it can influence the behavior of stage (1).

One slight complication is the existence of an endline character within a line. TeX considers that the end and ignores the rest of the line. Also a comment character (normally %) causes the rest of the line to be ignored, including the endline character.

Note that tokenization happens within a line (you cannot start a macro token on one line and finish it on the next), but expansion -- step (2) -- can request more tokens and that can continue over to the next line.

I don't know whether you can put this process under either of your two schemes. The "chunks" are either lines or tokens, neither of which have constant length, so the first description is out. And certainly TeX doesn't read a whole file at once (except perhaps it may move it from disk to an input buffer for efficiency).

As for outputting the results: TeX sends it a page at a time to the output. It evaluates whether a full page has been obtained after each paragraph has been processed. When it breaks paragraphs into lines (along with hyphenation and margin justifying), it operates on an entire paragraph at a time.

share|improve this answer
you might elaborate on what happens if a line ends with % -- that obscures the eol. (i honestly don't remember whether it then pulls in the next line, or proceeds to tokenize, remembering that tokenization can't finish until the continuation (next) line is added in.) –  barbara beeton Feb 3 at 13:41
Tokenization does finish before the next line in that case, but expansion cannot always finish. I will add a remark about % in a bit. –  Dan Feb 3 at 20:09

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.