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I wrote a book about LaTeX, and my proud grandma wanted to have a copy. So she got it, said "What a beautiful picture on the cover!" and - "What is this, LaTeX?".

She doesn't know Word, never used a computer. But she reads books. How can I explain what makes TeX and LaTeX special to a non-technical person? I don't mean introducing in using, and the existing question "What are TeX and LaTeX?" with its answers is still much too technical.

Such challenges are not rare. I need to explain to my boss why I request some days off to go to a TeX conference, and soon my daughter will want to know what daddy does on the computer. My girlfriend needs to understand why I spend so much time at TeX.SE.

Does anyone know eye-opening words? Perhaps an analogy or a metaphor would help? So grandma, girlfriend, daughter, boss - all may roughly understand and say "Ah, such a thing? Useful indeed!"

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22  
Kids, get off of my lawn! ♥ –  Paulo Cereda Jan 22 '13 at 18:58
31  
Test yourself against The Up-goer Five Text Editor –  percusse Jan 22 '13 at 19:55
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I joined this SE JUST to upvote this question. –  Melanie Jan 23 '13 at 6:34
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This question sets a new benchmark: Achieved score of 99 in the first 24 hours. –  lockstep Jan 23 '13 at 17:20
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This is possibly the most adorable question I've ever seen on TeX. –  Aarthi Jan 23 '13 at 18:23

28 Answers 28

up vote 158 down vote accepted
+50

LaTeX is to a book what a set of blueprints is to a building.

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Too bad you cannot double up vote! –  Dror Jan 30 '13 at 7:20
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The quality of this answer, takes a while to sink in. At first I dismissed it, but then 30 seconds later, it just felt so right. Good answer. * "The LaTeX user is the architect that, designs the blueprint, for the computer and printer to build." * "Any trade-y can throw together a shed without any kinda of plan, but a beautiful building requires blueprints." –  Oxinabox Jul 6 '13 at 0:38
    
@Dror you can award a bounty –  cmhughes Sep 29 '13 at 23:39
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Shouldn't this be "LaTeX source files are to a book...". Because LaTeX, as a language, would be equivalent to the conventions shared by the architect (the book author) and the builder (the LaTeX engine) to interpret blueprints (LaTeX sources). –  adl Oct 2 '13 at 7:47
    
+1 for the gold badge! ;) –  Doorknob Jan 18 at 22:43

It does this but it uses a computer and so requires less manual labour.

enter image description here

(image from Wikipedia)

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14  
+1 for the pic! –  Count Zero Jan 22 '13 at 17:34
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+1 that sort of printing is totally lost to my/our generation :( always good to be reminded of how fortunate we are. –  thang Jan 22 '13 at 22:40
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did not know that. for t-shirt printing, I usually put the order in and the t-shirts arrive in the mail. –  thang Jan 23 '13 at 5:46
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@thang I once heard a little kid asking their parent "Which factories manufacture strawberries?" - I was both impressed (it already understood the concept of factories) and shocked at the same time... –  Tobias Kienzler Jan 23 '13 at 13:59
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My grandma says that this picture doesn't look like her Word. So it doesn't answer. –  Nakilon Jan 24 '13 at 16:57

Hypothetical dialogue follows.

Dear <insert subject name here>,

I would like to spend a few minutes talking about something cool. In fact, it's not just cool. It's amazingly cool. It's not "Albert Einstein playing guitar" cool, neither "Abraham Lincoln riding a bear with a machine gun" cool, it's way more superb. Believe me, it's super duper ultra mega hyper kamehameha über cool. I'll talk about something called LaTeX.

googling latex is tragic.

No <insert subject name here>, it's not latex, but LaTeX. See the awesomeness right there? You have a completely different word, with caps and stuff. A word that you need to hold Shift no less than three times in order to get it right has to be good. Let's start with the basics.

Say lay.

Now, say techhhhhhh. The sound cannot come from the heart, it has to come from the throat. Some vocal exercises might help.

Good, now let's say those two words together: laytech. Good! Now you know how to pronounce this mysterious word. Please, clean up your monitor before proceeding (Don Knuth says monitors can get a little moist after such exercise). Who's Don, you say? Good ol' Donald Knuth, our guide! Here's a picture of him if you "don know don"! Ha! I'm funny.

Don

No, Don doesn't have a TeX.sx T-shirt. Yet

Back to the LaTeX awesomeness. Do you like using Word, Writer or <insert word application name here>? Have you ever encountered some sort of problem when using any of them? I did. File formats, images out of their original place, bad formatting. To name a few. Anyway, these programs are great. But what if I tell you there's something even greater than all of these programs?

What?

Yes, there is.

Think of a program that takes a bunch of text, plain text with some markup in it, enters inside a blackbox and voilà, a cool PDF magically appears in the other side! What's this markup thing?

Think of rules. Logical rules. Too fast? OK, let's start with some concepts. For example, let's say every time you want to write a text in boldface, instead of clicking the B button of your word application while selecting the text you want to apply this style, you will simply write this word before the text: QUACK. Wow, that's it? So

This is QUACK my text, yay!

will appear in bold?!

Yes. Of course, we need to define a range, so let's use another word to specify the end of the boldface range: POTATOES. Now,

This is QUACK my text, POTATOES yay!

Believe it or not, this is a markup rule! Awesome, isn't it?

In LaTeX, we replace QUACK by \textbf{ and POTATOES by }, but let's not worry with this now.

So, where should we type our texts? In any text editor! Yes, any editor. You just need to specify, via logical rules, how your document should look like. And guess what, LaTeX does the rest for you!

LaTeX is an application and it's free. Do you know what that means? You can get a high quality document and save money for beer!

Free!

LaTeX is shipped in something we call TeX distribution. Think of a toolbox. Everything you'll need is there. Just use and abuse.

We have something we call packages which help us make our documents look cooler. They are like LEGO blocks, just get the one you need for your project and use it!

So you see, <insert subject name here>, we can use LaTeX in virtually any kind of document! Think of newspapers, articles, books, calendars, children party invitations, CVs, songsheets. The list is endless!

LaTeX generates beautiful documents from plain text. Simple yet amazing concepts. Why do I use it instead of a normal word application? LaTeX works.

Cat

Writing a document in LaTeX is similar of baking a pie. You have the ingredients, you know the order and how to dispose them. Now simply arrange them accordingly, put the plate into the oven and hope for the best. A document follows the same logic, sadly it's not as delicious as a pie.

Speaking of food, LaTeX is much like Marmite. Either you love or hate it.

Marmite

Well, that's it, <insert subject name here>. Thanks for the pair of socks for my birthday, I really appreciate the thought. :)

I was tempted to post this link. :)

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14  
“and save money for beer” was the reason I started with LaTeX in the first place ;) –  cgnieder Jan 22 '13 at 20:53
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+1 for grandma typing "latex" into google :D –  Rico Jan 22 '13 at 21:17
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Saw the first picture, knew it was an answer from Paulo :) –  doncherry Jan 22 '13 at 22:02
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I signed up just to say you only need to hit shift twice for LaTeX if you have caps lock on, or no times at all if you alternate with the caps lock key. –  Rob Jan 23 '13 at 16:30
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LaTeX to me is... NEVER HAVING TO USE A MOUSE... ever. –  LordStryker Jan 24 '13 at 17:44

If people ask me what LaTeX is, I explain it like this:

Imagine you wrote a book and want to publish it. You, as an author, are good at writing and explaining stuff but you don't know how to "design" it.

When your book looks like this, you wouldn't earn a penny, selling it:

plain Text

What you need is someone how is trained at making text readable and looking beautiful at the same time. This guy is called lector. He creates a concept of your book. For him it is enough to know what kind of book you are writing, but he does not need to know what is in it.

After his work is done the concept could look like this:

concept

Now, that we have a concept we need to combine both parts together. The one who gets paid for this is called the typesetter. She takes both parts and puts them together.

The result could look like this:

typesetter

We've learned that it takes 3 people to create a book, the author, the lector and the typesetter. But what has this got to do with LaTeX? This is a pretty easy question. We are the author and LaTeX does the job of the lector and the typesetter. It creates a concept and combines it with the text we have written. We don't have to spend time thinking about how it should look like because LaTeX will find the best way and make it look great.

(About "Russischer Zupfkuchen" see e.g. here. It is some sort of cheesecake)

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6  
Really nice! I'll use this one for my introductions. Where is the lectoring part taken from? –  Uwe Ziegenhagen Jan 22 '13 at 18:30
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I'm not sure that lector's the correct English term. I'm unable to find any definition not related to public speaking for it. –  Dan Neely Jan 22 '13 at 19:41
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I think this so far is the most compelling answer. It's not too technical, not too pictorial, and includes beauty. The chosen example (a recipe) is comprehensive. –  Daniel Jan 22 '13 at 20:45
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@FordPrefect its the xcookybook Package. But beware, it took me some hours to get it work... –  Rico Jan 22 '13 at 20:56
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That would be a good example for a grandmother. Compare her recipe cards to a cookbook. "If you typed out your instructions from a recipe card, even if you added all the details, it wouldn't look like <your favorite cookbook>. This type of software converts your typewritten version into something that could go into a cookbook." –  Art Taylor Jan 23 '13 at 4:56

Why not use Donald Knuth's words? It's a tool "for making beautiful books."

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I just explained it to a friend of mine the other night, in probably the same words that you might use for your daughter:

It's a tool that is used to tell a printer where to put words, lines, pictures etc. on a page and it's really good at that.

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1  
communicating with lay people, one's spouse, and even one's peers is often a challenge ... i'd probably reword your suggestion as: "LaTeX is a system that interprets formatting instructions that are associated with an author's plain text so that a computer can make the printed output more pleasing to the eyes of the author's audience." ... i'm not claiming my suggestion is better than yours ... i'm simply trying to avoid "tool" and "printer" because grandma might think of "hammer" and the person who printed her wedding invitations. –  gerryLowry Jan 24 '13 at 11:04

A dubious analogy?... guess we'll see

Imagine that you are baking a cake, and that somehow you could magically get software on a computer to do it for you.

LaTeX would...

  • measure the ingredients
  • mix them perfectly
  • create very little mess
  • write down all of its decisions for you to follow later
  • would only ever ask you for clarification if it was absolutely necessary
  • bake the cake and produce among the best tasting cake you have ever eaten

Other software would....

  • probably not do it nearly as well, and you'd end up having to make the cake yourself

Once the analogy has been made, replace 'baking a cake' for 'typesetting a document', 'ingredients' for 'content', and 'best tasting cake you have ever eaten' for 'best looking document you have ever seen'.

Of course, the user has to provide the ingredients/content :)

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+1: grandmas usually love baking cakes :) –  Count Zero Jan 22 '13 at 18:57

It is useless to explain some thing to some people. Your explanations will be too complicated or too boring.

Probably is better to explain first what is NOT LaTeX to keep you out of trouble when people look in Google to see where you spend your time. I've seen that Paulo Cereda also thought about this risks. In a second step you can explain that playing with \Latex is a type of serious work (I had thought just in the same image already uploaded by David Carlisle for this). Also it is worth to mention that you are not a slave of a strange glambling addiction. For thus I think in some examples of that anyone can learn just here ... but may be this is not a good idea.
WhatIsNotLatex

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+1 Oh you already wrote what I want to write. Thanks. –  cyanide-based food Jan 24 '13 at 13:30
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Relevant: wiki.contextgarden.net/Humour#latex_and_LaTeX –  Aditya Jan 24 '13 at 21:31
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+1 for Cthulu-worshiping madmen! –  Code-Guru Jan 25 '13 at 0:50
    
@Fran, how did you create the text loop? –  NVaughan Jan 30 '13 at 18:03
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@NVaughman, see tex.stackexchange.com/questions/88751/text-spirals-with-tikz –  Fran Jan 30 '13 at 20:52

I simply would say LaTeX is the way to produce beautiful texts that even you, dear grandma, who never typed an e-mail, can appreciate it.

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Especially grandma can appreciate it, since she know the beautifully typeset books of olden days. –  Martin Schröder Jan 23 '13 at 11:38
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As long as she sees a thing. –  marczellm Jan 24 '13 at 18:44

That's a problem I bumped into several times (I used to work on projects in which the aim was to produce e-learning material about the internet for seniors, who never used a PC - go figure...).

In such cases I try to explain by starting with an analogy taking an example from - well, you know it - the analog world. :) In the case of LaTeX I would focus on typesetting. It existed way before computers and should be pretty easy to understand as a concept. Then I'd sum up in a few words the motivation of the venerable master Knuth to typeset beautiful papers, mainly because of the botched way math was typeset back then (in the early days so to say) - because for cost reduction typewriters were used to do this - to finally jump to present day and oversimplify a bit by selling the computer as a very smart typewriter.

That's it roughly. Add details/anecdotes as required.

... and don't forget to mention your book was typeset with LaTeX! :)

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The publisher used InDesign, that's why it's useable but not perfect. –  Stefan Kottwitz Jan 22 '13 at 17:36
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Awww dang... would've been perfect (in a perfect world)! –  Count Zero Jan 22 '13 at 17:37
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but math used to be "beautiful" -- knuth followed the principles of the compositors who produced books and journals with metal type. it's only when typewriters (albeit super-functional ones) started being used (to reduce costs) and then computers were enlisted to make the decisions without human intervention that the quality went downhill. addison-wesley would never have used typewriter composition for a knuth book, but by the time a second edition of vol.2 was needed, there were no human compositors left to set metal type. –  barbara beeton Jan 22 '13 at 18:58
    
@barbarabeeton: that's exactly my point, the quality was abysmal because of the (semi)automatic typewriters used back then. I probably wasn't specific enough. I fixed my answer accordingly, thanks! –  Count Zero Jan 22 '13 at 19:01
    
If you can find a copy, read "The printing of mathematics: aids for authors and editors and rules for compositors and readers at the University Press", Oxford Theodore William Chaundy, Oxford University Press, 1957 - 109 pages –  Ethan Bolker Feb 4 '13 at 2:37

Explaining technical tools to those with less technological context is often hard. Things they're most interested in tend to be who might use it and why that person might use it, as opposed to technical details.

  • What is LaTeX? LaTeX is a programming language for writing, most often for technical writing.
  • What problem does LaTeX solve? The problem is that there is a lot of useful technical jargon that doesn't get formatted well in paragraphs, such as formulas and graphs. LaTeX is often used to take that content that is hard to format, and lay it out in a visually appealing way.
  • Who uses it? Many writers use LaTeX, but especially technical writers who need to write out those mathematical or scientific symbols, graphs, notations, and other content that's harder to get or use in simpler word processors.

In a short paragraph, that might read as:

LaTeX is a programming language that a writer uses to get the computer to understand complicated ideas about how to lay out a document. It was designed for technical documents, with lots of support for math and science notation, so it's most often used by technical writers to help visually organize their material. A paper written in LaTeX is often pretty and well designed with much less effort than plain text.

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If only there was an English word everybody knew that expressed the futility of trying to do something in Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, that should have been done with LaTeX. If we used the German way of doing things we could make up a word like OhMyHeckIHateMicrosoftWord. –  Warren P Jan 22 '13 at 20:06
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@WarrenP What's wrong with futile exercise? Admittedly, that's two words. :) –  Michael Kjörling Jan 23 '13 at 9:10
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Just because LaTeX was designed for technical documents doesn't mean that's all its good for. I laid out a comic book in LaTeX. (Because scripting makes things easier.) –  fluffy Jan 24 '13 at 18:30
    
Modified the wording to better represent that. –  rsegal Jan 24 '13 at 18:34

"Well grandma, LaTeX is a typesetting language. It is a very precise way to describe to a computer what the text and images of a document should look like, and how they should be positioned. It's often used for entire books. In fact, the book I wrote was typeset using LaTeX! I wrote the book to teach other people how to use LaTeX too."

I'm assuming your grandma is old, not stupid.

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Thanks, sure, she's smart, just has zero experience with computers and text processing or writing, except handwriting. –  Stefan Kottwitz Jan 23 '13 at 11:39

LaTeX is a bunch of superfluous abstractions built on top of the TeX typesetting language. A typesetting language which computationally imitates the work of a typesetter.

Explaining stuff to people doesn't have to mean spitting white lies between your teeth via misattribution.

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Clear, precise, concise. I love this one! –  lvaneesbeeck Jan 25 '13 at 1:00

It’s kind of rough but normally I explain it like

TeX   is   a   software   to   typeset   books …
               tool            layout    texts
               program         make
               application     produce

 (it’s not like Word!: It’s build to make things look nice, readable
 and beautiful and not only to string letters, like Word does)

with alternatives set in columns

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I don't know Stefan's grandma, but considering my grandma, we learnt her the difference between "charge a mobile with money" and "charge a mobile with energy". That's where here technology knowledge ends. She has no idea what is software etc., not speaking about Word. ;) –  tohecz Jan 23 '13 at 17:06
    
But she might know what a tool is ;-) The sentence about Word is intended for bosses … –  Tobi Jan 23 '13 at 23:22

Maybe using the traditional Before & After way:

Before

Before

After

After

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I would explain like so:

Remember the old printing presses? They would have some typesetters putting all the letters in place on the press. The typesetters would work according to rules about which font should be used where, how things should line up, where the pictures should go, what the margins would be, how the pages should be numbered and so on.

LaTeX is some computing software from making electronic documents. However, unlike using a word processor, people who use LaTeX are like modern typesetters. With LaTeX they can create rules about fonts, margins, colours, pictures, layout and so on, and then the document they are making will come out accordingly. What's even better is they can put these rules into a special file to share them with people. Then those peoples' documents will come out with the same formatting and style. This makes things really easy as none has to worry about formatting and can get on with writing.

All this control means that documents made with LaTeX look beautiful with little effort. The quality of LaTeX compared to a word processor can be like the quality of a newspaper compared to typewriter.

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LaTeX is a language that a human being can use to let a computer know how a manuscript should be typeset and printed.

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I would order one of the (oh so many) self-edited books on Lulu or Amazon made with Microsoft Word, with page numbers inside the bindings, no justification, no hyphenation, no indexes, etc. and show her the difference: with LaTeX, this wouldn't have happened…

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Your oven = My computer

Your recipe = My code

Your mixer machine = My TeX engine

Your delicious cake = My beautiful book

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I would just say, "LaTeX is a computing system that makes it easier for people to layout and publish printed works," and take the conversation from there.

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LaTeX is like a recipe. It just text useless on itself, but with a seasoned chef and and some ingredients you'll get a actual meal. In the case of LaTeX it's just a computer instead a cook you'll need and piece of typography you ought to get.

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To quote Wikipedia:

LaTeX is a system used for making printed text look good using a computer. It is especially good at making mathematical formulas look right. It is used on Wikipedia. It is used mostly at colleges.

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Does Wikipedia use the real LaTeX? –  tohecz Jan 23 '13 at 14:15
    
@tohecz I doubt it uses the entire LaTeX system, probably just the math typesetting aspect (and possibly some other environments). It doesn't use mathjax but some hash-based renderer (which is rather irritating when you want to look up how an equation was typed up) –  Thomas Jan 26 '13 at 23:35
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as long as they do not use the Knuths math formula algorithm, I'm unwilling to call it (*)TeX. –  tohecz Jan 26 '13 at 23:38

The most important early warning that we have to mention is that LaTeX in question has nothing to do with the following types of clothing.

enter image description here

Instead, LaTeX is a computer program that can beautifully typeset almost everything.

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I think you will find they are not latex either. –  Nicholas Hamilton Jan 28 at 4:53

I think I would show what TeX can do. I think people are underestimating grandma. It doesn't take technical nous to appreciate beauty or clarity.

This leaflet was designed to advertise and explain TeX. It contains a mix of different things so might be nice to show a family group, for example, with lots of different interests. Karl Berry notes that you need to zoom in to really appreciate it - it looks much less impressive until you start examining the detail and it is packed with detail.

The TeX Showcase is excellent in part because you can select examples of particular interest to particular people. For example, your grandma might like this book sample or this more scientific one. If your grandma is from my part of the world The Book of Tea might go down especially well. Or perhaps this genealogy if grandma is interested in family history.

While not the best choice for somebody who doesn't use computers, there are plenty of suitable examples there with a more hi-tech feel as well. And linguists should have a field day, too.

For a young child maybe the movie example (I guess a small child won't care what it is really about!) or this spinning globe.

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This is very grandma-specific:

LaTeX is for writing good-looking books what knitting is for making a warm pair of socks.

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This is hard. To most grandmas a computer is a magic and/or useless box which for some reason the younger generations can't get enough of. To most grandmas, a computer is indeed that big white box with a "tv" attached or next to it; the inner workings mean nothing to them (they wouldn't refer to a smartphone as a "computer", and perhaps not even a "phone" unless they see it being used as such... might as well be a remote). I know, some of your grandmas probably use facebook, have smartphones and whatnot, but that's not the case here or in general.

That being said, I think that the most reasonable way to exaplain it is to say "it's a way of making books look as nice as they do", and then you show her a printed book as an example, and point out certain details and how nice the book is because of it.

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A long time ago, every book was hand written. This was making books expensive and explains why they had no much diffusion.

Then, say in 15th century, one sharp person called John Gutemberg invented some new technology that made preparation and printing of books faster and more efficient.

In 20th century - quite a long jump, to keep this short - the use of typewriter became very frequent to produce long and short documents, just before computers became the standard.

Typewriter and computer have in common the keyboard, that we still use to type our text when using LaTeX on a computer.

When I use LaTeX to write a book or any text on a computer, I type my text on the keyboard, plus some additional text called markup (LaTeX markup) in some position I know.

We are now not interested in how a computer processes text and markup, I am also very ignorant in this topic. But all that is to be said is that while my text provides the content, the bit of additional text (LaTeX markup) I typed into it provides all the pagination and layout setting you can appreciate in any modern "professional" book of your interest, that you can leaf through in any bookshop.

...good nite granny :)

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First of all, I am a bloody latex beginner..

I love it when I proudly present my latex-document to my girlfriend and she responses like "Oh, and where is the difference to word? In word, it looks identically!"

When I respond that you can spare a lot of time because your presettings are applied on the whole document and you don't need to do formatting again and again, she tells me that "she likes to have the control".

To sum up, I think that you must be confortable with using LaTeX by yourself. Rest should not count, otherwise I would proceed doing word. :)

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