In some old documents I used \special. However, in my new documents, I want to run pdfLaTeX, because I have other figures in PDF format. If I run pdfTeX on the .tex file, it rejects the `specials`. Is there any way to get pdfTeX to accept specials?

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    We will need more detail: \special is used for 'back end stuff', which could be anything. – Joseph Wright Jul 9 '13 at 17:54

The \special command is basically telling the backend, i.e., the output device, how to behave. Therefore the content of a \special command is device dependent and there is now way to make an output device A understand the syntax of device B unless A is accepting what B wants in the first place as well.

Now pdftex and thus pdflatex use both a "TeX"-engine as well as an output device that generates printer output (PDF data in this case) and it has certain conventions for \special but not others. So if your old document has been written for some specific DVI printer device or for example for a PostScript device then no, you can't make those documents work without replacing the content of the \special commands.

For precisely this reason LaTeX2e introduced abstraction layers that hide graphic and color \special syntax, by providing higher level packages (graphics, graphicx, color) that offer a standard syntax and internally translate these commands into the \special commands the output device needs to load a picture or to select a color or to rotate an image.

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  • Is there no lucky cases where \pdfliteral can save the day? – percusse Jul 9 '13 at 20:44
  • @percusse how? if the \special had any direct function (which is supposedly had) like loading a graphic then either you disable the \special in which case the document will render differently or you manually change all specials to use syntax that pdftex supports. – Frank Mittelbach Jul 10 '13 at 9:02
  • True of course. I was just wondering if there are any small subset of backend specials shared by all drivers or not. That's probably an irrelevant question related to the issue at hand though. – percusse Jul 10 '13 at 9:19

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