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In addition to egreg's answer the other reason is same reason \sin gives an error, or \hat etc. By far the most common reason for encountering a ^ in text mode is that the author has gone blah blah and 1 + x^2 = 2, blah ... but forgotten to mark the math mode region. Making math mode commands an error in text mode is an explicit design decision that ...


Yes, there is a very basic one: when input lines are being read, if TeX finds two consecutive ^ characters, it interprets the input in a very peculiar way: if the ^^ combination is followed by two hexadecimal lowercase digits (0123456789abcdef), then TeX transforms the four bytes into the byte corresponding to the hexadecimal number; otherwise TeX computes ...

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