TeX - LaTeX Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for users of TeX, LaTeX, ConTeXt, and related typesetting systems. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Everywhere in the TeX community, I see suggestions like \parskip, \obeylines, \parindent, etc. I'd be surprised not to find them even in the most basic LaTeX packages. So I figured they must be deeper down in the TeX core as primitives. Knowing how they work would be very useful.

Googling for tex primitives takes me to TeX Primitive Control Sequences. Is there a printable PDF version of such a reference?

share|improve this question
I take it 'Buy the TeXbook' would not count as an answer :-) – Joseph Wright Oct 22 '10 at 17:33
You could, of course, download texbook.tex, perform the obvious modification so that it is actually possible to TeX it, and finally print the output ... but that is likely illegal, would violate Knuth's stated desires, and it would certainly not have as nice a binding as if you just followed @Joseph's suggestion. – SamB Nov 30 '10 at 2:30
@SamB, I do not know the obvious modification and I think it will be a Pandora's Box should it leak out. – Kit Nov 30 '10 at 3:51
well, I'm only assuming it's obvious ... I still haven't decided whether or not to actually try what seems like the obvious thing ... – SamB Nov 30 '10 at 5:44
Incidentally, anyone who considers tex'ing the TeXBook should take a look at tex.stackexchange.com/q/6204/86 and in particular Barbara Beeton's comment therein. – Loop Space Mar 6 '11 at 19:34
up vote 14 down vote accepted

I think your best bet is Victor Eijkhout's TeX by topic.

Oh, and by the way, some of those “primitives” aren't primitives at all, but plain TeX macros.

share|improve this answer

Joseph assumes that "Buy the TeXbook" would not count as an answer, but I disagree.

I think that The TeXbook is very well-written and explains every primitive and plain TeX macro. It's well-worth the time to read it for any serious TeX user. The previous sentence is still true even if you never want to write a macro package or delve into the innards of TeX. It helps when macros become something you can understand rather than mystic incantations you utter from time to time.

share|improve this answer
TH, there's probably not in all the Philippines a single bookstore that stocks the TeXbook, and the cost of importing one probably puts that idea completely out of reach. I wonder if there were a way we could somehow band together to send him one ourselves? – Geoffrey Jones Oct 23 '10 at 4:27
I suppose one could read texbook.tex, but that would probably be a lot less helpful than having the actual book. – TH. Oct 23 '10 at 5:21
At some stage I do hope that Professor Knuth or his publishers will sort out a (paid for) PDF version of The TeXbook. This is the way many computer programming books are going, and it is quite technically possible. – Joseph Wright Oct 23 '10 at 10:08
Yes indeed. It's somewhat hard to tell the sample code from the actual markup of the book, for starters... – SamB Nov 30 '10 at 5:50
I have a hard copy of the TeXbook. As a new TeX user, I have tried to use it as a reference manual. While it is an excellent introduction to TeX, and I agree it's well worth your time, it is not a (good) reference manual. When a primitive is first described, it's described in the context of the topic being discussed, and in reference to a number of other things that are likely to be unknown to the new user. Its purpose is to describe TeX concepts and how to use them, not to make it easy to discover the basic meaning of a primitive. – LarsH Jul 31 '13 at 21:01

The book TeX for the Impatient is now freely available, and covers Plain TeX quite well: http://www.gnu.org/software/teximpatient/

At one point in time, I recall seeing an announcement of the source of Plain.tex inter-woven w/ the appropriate comments from TeXbook.tex as a literate program, but that probably runs afoul of the copyright limitations of the latter (but raises the question of why plain.tex isn't plain.web)

share|improve this answer

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.