Please forgive such a basic question, but I did some Google searching and looked around on this site, and while there are many threads and online resources that involve tokens, I can't seem to find a direct explanation of what a token is, specifically in the context of TeX, LaTeX, etc. Perhaps there is a good explanation of tokens in the TeXbook, but I don't have a copy of it.

This Wikipedia page gives me some idea:

A token is a string of characters, categorized according to the rules as a symbol (e.g., IDENTIFIER, NUMBER, COMMA).

but this is a bit too general for me to understand. Taking a guess based on the Wikipedia definition and this TeX.SE thread, is it correct to say that a token is "a thing that has a catcode"? (which, even if true, does not seem entirely satisfactory as an answer: what characterizes the things that are given catcodes?)

Some illustrative examples, and non-examples, of tokens in the realm of TeX, LaTeX, etc. would be much appreciated.


4 Answers 4


The following is taken from the TeXBook:

When TeX reads a line of text from a file, or a line of text that you entered directly on your terminal, it converts that text into a list of "tokens." A token is either (a) a single character with an attached category code, or (b) a control sequence. For example, if the normal conventions of plain TeX are in force, the text {\hskip 36 pt} is converted into a list of eight tokens:

{1 \hskip 312 612 10 p11 t11 }2

The subscripts here are the category codes, as listed earlier: 1 for "beginning of group," 12 for "other character," and so on. The \hskip doesn't get a subscript, because it represents a control sequence token instead of a character token. Notice that the space after \hskip does not get into the token list, because it follows a control word.

It is important to understand the idea of token lists, if you want to gain a thorough understanding of TeX, and it is convenient to learn the concept by thinking of TeX as if it were a living organism. The individual lines of input in your files are seen only by TeX's "eyes" and "mouth"; but after that text has been gobbled up, it is sent to TeX's "stomach" in the form of a token list, and the digestive processes that do the actual typesetting are based entirely on tokens. As far as the stomach is concerned, the input flows in as a stream of tokens, somewhat as if your TeX manuscript had been typed all on one extremely long line.

You should remember two chief things about TeX's tokens: (1) A control sequence is considered to be a single object that is no longer composed of a sequence of symbols. Therefore long control sequence names are no harder for TeX to deal with than short ones, after they have been replaced by tokens. Furthermore, spaces are not ignored after control sequences inside a token list; the ignore-space rule applies only in an input file, during the time that strings of characters are being tokenized. (2) Once a category code has been attached to a character token, the attachment is permanent. For example, if character { were suddenly declared to be of category 12 instead of category 1, the characters {1 already inside token lists of TeX would still remain of category 1; only newly made lists would contain {12 tokens. In other words, individual characters receive a fixed interpretation as soon as they have been read from a file, based on the category they have at the time of reading. Control sequences are different, since they can change their interpretation at any time. TeX's digestive processes always know exactly what a character token signifies, because the category code appears in the token itself; but when the digestive processes encounter a control sequence token, they must look up the current definition of that control sequence in order to figure out what it means.

For a list of these category codes, as reference, see What are category codes?

  • 1
    Thanks, this is quite helpful. I still have some questions though: technically speaking, would it be correct to say that a given character in the input file is not a token, only the data TeX produces after reading it is? In other words, is it correct to say that the "mouth" eats input file, and from this, produces tokens to send to the "stomach", but the input file itself does not contain any tokens? Also, as used in the above excerpt, would "control sequence" be synonymous with "macro" or "command"? Commented Mar 24, 2013 at 6:00
  • 3
    @user27638 The input file does not consist of tokens in a TeX sense as it's only when TeX reads each character that tokenization takes place. Thus each token is something represented in TeX's memory, rather than in a file. Control sequence is not equivalent to either macro or command. LaTeX uses 'command' for documented interfaces which are almost entirely macros. However, a control sequence can be a macro, a primitive, a \chardef token, etc.
    – Joseph Wright
    Commented Mar 24, 2013 at 9:50

The description given in the Wikipedia page is good for languages such as C, but not for TeX. The principle is however similar: TeX inputs sequences of bytes and transforms them into objects that it can operate on, which are called tokens.

The precise rules are described in chapter 7 of the TeXbook and chapter 2 of TeX by Topic. Let me try and give a short description of the process.

  1. TeX reads one record at a time (a line in the input file, more or less) and discards the end-of-record terminator along with all spaces (characters with ASCII code 32) that immediately precede this end-of-record; then it appends its internally defined end-of-record byte (the byte corresponding to \endlinechar, usually 13 that's the same as "carriage return").

    For the sake of simplicity, I'll assume that \endlinechar=13 and that the category code of byte 13 is 5.

  2. After this normalization step it resumes working on the line byte by byte. To each byte (character, if you prefer), it associates a category code, that is, a number from 0 to 15, according to the rules explained at the end.

  3. First of all, bytes with category code 10 which are at the start of a line are ignored. If only the end-of-record remains, TeX inserts in its main token list the token \par, otherwise (if it's not reading the first input line) it inserts a space token (a pair (32,10), see later). TeX is in "skipping blanks state".

  4. When it finds a byte with category code different from 10 and 5, TeX enters a new state, its normal one: every byte with category code different from 0, 9, 14 or 15 becomes a character token, so a pair (charcode, catcode), for subsequent processing. Bytes with catcode 9 or 15 are ignored (in the latter case an error message is issued), while bytes with category code 14 cause TeX to ignore it along with everything that remains on the line, including the end-of-record byte.

  5. When it finds a byte with category code 0, usually \, TeX enters a new state, where it forms a symbolic token. If the byte following \ has category code different from 11, a token is formed having as its name that byte (examples: \1, \% and so on) and resumes the previous normal state.

  6. If the byte following \ has category code 11 (a letter, normally), TeX starts forming a control word: it goes along until a byte with category code different from 11 is found. The bytes thus stored form the name of this control word which becomes a symbolic token and TeX returns to the skipping blanks state.

Thus tokens can be either a (charcode, catcode) pair or a symbolic token. Note that this process doesn't look at the meaning of these tokens, which is examined only at a later stage.

What's very important to know is when this happens. Actually TeX's processing of the input is a combination of tokenization and macro expansion. TeX looks at the input whenever it needs some token to operate on. For instance, if TeX is supplied a symbolic token that's expandable (macro or primitive), it reads and tokenizes the input until the arguments of this expandable token are found.

This is why \verb cannot be in the argument of another command. Suppose we have \mbox{\verb|{ab}|} in our input. TeX finds the symbolic token \mbox and recognizes it's expandable (because it's a macro defined with \def) and that it requires an argument


Therefore TeX reads the input for getting another token, which happens to be { (precisely the ({,1) pair) and so it knows it must read up to the matching } for determining the argument. During this process, tokens are formed as described above, so the argument is the following sequence of tokens

\verb |12 {1 a11 b11 }2 |12

and this disrupts the working of \verb that has to temporarily change the category codes of bytes, which is now impossible because they have already been stored as tokens.

Conversely, when \verb|{ab}| is not in the argument to a command, \verb operates in a delayed fashion.

  1. \verb has one argument, the delimiter character; its first operation is opening a group with \bgroup and changing the category code of | (in this example) to 2, so that it will match the inserted \bgroup and undo all assignments of category codes (including changing the catcode of | to 2).

  2. It changes all category codes of non letters to 12 (except for |), so they become printable (well, this is no the complete truth, but a good approximation to it) and lets TeX go along tokenising: no symbolic token will be formed, because no byte has category code 0, in this setting. When the final | is found, it closes the group, undoes the category code assignments and TeX will return to its normal operations.

The rules for assigning category codes

TeX maintains a catcode vector, that is, an array with 256 slots numbered from 0 to 255; each slot contains an integer in the range 0–15. When TeX reads a character from the input file (we're at the second step in the first list above), it knows its ASCII code so it looks in the catcode vector and assigns this character the corresponding category code. An entry in this vector can be modified by

\catcode <integer> = <4 bit integer>

This vector is suitably extended when XeTeX or LuaTeX, that understand the full Unicode range, is used; however, the possible category codes are still 16:

  • 0 means “escape”; usually only one character has this code, the backslash \, but in some circumstances it's necessary to temporarily use another one

  • 1 means “beginning of group”, usually {; such a character starts a group or delimits an argument;

  • 2 means “end of group”, usually };

  • 3 means “math shift”, usually $;

  • 4 means “tabulation”, usually &;

  • 5 means “end-of-line”; usually we have \catcode\endlinechar=5, see above for the role of this category code, which is decisive for the well known feature that an empty line is equivalent to ending a paragraph;

  • 6 means “parameter”, usually #; it's obviously the one used in macro definitions;

  • 7 means “superscript”, usually ^; it has also another usage in combinations such as ^^M, but it would be too long to explain (it can be found in TeX by Topic or the TeXbook);

  • 8 means “subscript”, usually _;

  • 9 means “ignored”; usually byte 0 has this category code;

  • 10 means “space”; usually bytes 32 and 10 (space and tab) share this category code;

  • 11 means “letter”; printable letters have this code;

  • 12 means “other printable character”; punctuation symbols, for instance;

  • 13 means “active”; another long to explain feature; the ~ is usually active, such a character behaves like a macro and needs to be suitably defined;

  • 14 means “comment”; usually %; look at step 4 above for it's role;

  • 15 means “invalid”; usually byte 127 has this code.

Why categories 9 and 15? When TeX was being developed, more than three decades ago, some operating systems used fixed length record; this usage came from punch cards. These records were padded using byte 0. Byte 127 could mean “don't count this, it was set by error”, but it was also used in communications with teletypers for denoting a backspace.

Until 2019, also tabs were discarded at the end of a line in most TeX implementations, but this is no longer the case, making TeX behave as in the original implementations.

  • Very nice explanation about the tokens. One suggestion is that you can replace the category code integer number to some text, so a pair ({,1 beginning groups) can be bettered understood by the reader, since they don't need to look up the category table again and again.
    – ollydbg23
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 0:06
  • @ollydbg23 Thanks; I prefer to leave the numbers, but I added the list of category codes at the end.
    – egreg
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 8:43

According to the TeX book, the program, §289:

@* \[20] Token lists.
A \TeX\ token is either a character or a control sequence, and it is
represented internally in one of two ways: (1)~A character whose ASCII
code number is |c| and whose command code is |m| is represented as the
number $2^8m+c$; the command code is in the range |1<=m<=14|. (2)~A control
sequence whose |eqtb| address is |p| is represented as the number
|cs_token_flag+p|. Here |cs_token_flag=@t$2^{12}-1$@>| is larger than
$2^8m+c$, yet it is small enough that |cs_token_flag+p< max_halfword|;
thus, a token fits comfortably in a halfword.

A token |t| represents a |left_brace| command if and only if
|t<left_brace_limit|; it represents a |right_brace| command if and only if
we have |left_brace_limit<=t<right_brace_limit|; and it represents a |match| or
|end_match| command if and only if |match_token<=t<=end_match_token|.
The following definitions take care of these token-oriented constants
and a few others.
  • 1
    I think quote the raw tex code as an answer is not very helpful/convenient for a reader, I suggest show the final typed text. Thanks.
    – ollydbg23
    Commented Apr 17, 2014 at 0:09
  • @ollydbg23 the final typed text is protected under copyright; the source is openly available. Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 17:17
  • @SeanAllred Surely short paragraphs (unedited quotes), brief snippets and so on, properly attributed, are exempt from any prohibition. Commented May 13, 2021 at 11:40
  • @LinearChristmas if you have something that is perfectly readable for content, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t use that over something someone could make a claim against (even if it is reasonable fair use in the US). Just an opinion :-) Commented May 13, 2021 at 11:44
  • @SeanAllred No worries. I just don't want people to be afraid (unnecessarily). In my opinion, the text here is... maybe readable, but definitely not "perfectly" ;). Commented May 13, 2021 at 14:09

Correct me if I'm wrong. This answer is probably less correct than those above.

A token is a symbol (character if you like) which has been translated into tex language, but it's still just a symbol.

Each character(letter, number, etc..) in a block of text is considered to be a symbol, but an entire control sequence (e.g. \newpage) is also considered to be one symbol in Tex. So my definition would be 'token: a symbol in Tex'.

Symbols in your file are converted into a list of tokens and Tex acts on the tokens and outputs the pdf.

  • 1
    The point about tokens is that they are not jut chars. For example, z\`catcode`z=12 z will produce two tokens, both char z, one a letter and one an 'other' char.
    – Joseph Wright
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 7:55

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