From this answer to Why does PDFLaTeX and XeLaTeX generates 11.955 font size for 12pt documentclass option?, I found out that PDF and TeX have different ideas about the size of the point (pt). A TeX point is 1/72.27 inch, where Desktop Publishing Point (DPP), or a Big Point (BP) is 1/72 of an inch.

What is the historical and/or technical reason for this difference?

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    Palindromes were preferred. Welcome to TeX.SX! You can have a look at our starter guide to familiarize yourself further with our format.
    – cfr
    Sep 13, 2014 at 2:17
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    @cfr: I'm not a native speaker, so I don't quite get the meaning of "Palindromes were preferred". The guide states that we should insert the link directly, so I have inserted the question link. Hope this is acceptable? Sep 13, 2014 at 2:35
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    This question: Globally redefining 1 pt to 1/72 in (PostScript point) and other similar changes has most of the answer in the question. The TeX point is derived from the the Traditional American Point System.
    – Alan Munn
    Sep 13, 2014 at 2:52
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    @Krumia It was a bit of friendly sarcasm—72.27 is a palindrome :) Also, the rest of @cfr's comment is a 'boilerplate' welcome—something we give all new users in some variation. Sep 13, 2014 at 3:32
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    Knuth decided to use the traditional unit. Adobe, but perhaps they weren't the first, preferred an arbitrary rounding to 72 points per inch. Which is as stupid as imposing that there are 25 millimeters per inch just to help computations: should the inch shrink or the millimeter stretch? ;-)
    – egreg
    Sep 13, 2014 at 7:24

2 Answers 2


The history about the pica pint is quite interesting (at least for me). And it has to do with the way we measure types.

In the beginning

From the early days of the emergence of the printing press, and the mythical Gutenberg and for a long time, each printer, each workshop had its own way of measuring the types used. Its own scale.

This scale was arbitrary and used certain grades or reference magnitudes that were quite quaint and with curious names, at least in the Spanish typographic tradition. In the English one I don't know, but the idea should not differ much.

Towards a standard measure

It was not until the eighteenth century when the matter began to be normalized. At the end of the first half of this century, a French printer named Pierre Simon Fournier (the younger) tried to normalize that mess by creating a unit of typographic measure: the point. What Fournier did was take the smallest grade and he divided it into six parts, so the sixth part was the point and eleven points formed a cicero.

Almost twenty years later, François-Ambroise Didot perfected the defining point system from a French measure of length called pied-du-Roi, where 12 points (12 was a common number for dividing things before the metric system) formed a cicero related now with the ancient French inch. Notice that curiously it is France that began to normalize and look for a more orderly system of rational measurement, which gave rise to the metric system, SI base.

And so the Didot point, which was the unit of typographic measure most popular in Europe until the second half of the twentieth century, except in England and its colonies, was established.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, the cicero had its counterpart, a unit of similar length called the pica, which in turn also divides into 12 parts called points. So far we have two types of points: pica points and Didot points. The Didot points were defined as the 1/144 part of the old French inch, meanwhile the pica point measures 1/72.27 of an inch. I honestly do not know to what that extra 0.27 is due, but in traditional English typographic practice that is the value that it has been for centuries.

Then came Knuth and there was light

Then the (western) world was divided into two for a long time; measurement systems were not compatible. It is in this part of the story when Donald Ervin Knuth who is, as we all know here (I think), among many other things, the author of TeX, which in turn is the basis of LaTeX, ConTeXt, etc. Knuth was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his father owned a small printing business where Knuth, since childhood, was familiar with the technique of composition with types, which years later will abstract to create TeX. In those years the traditional pica and pica point ​​were not rounded.

Adobe conquers the world

In the second half of the twentieth century appeared computers, which in the 80s began to become popular and to enter into virtually all human activity, including typography. The 80s were the times of typographical democratization. They were also the days in which Adobe and PostScript emerged, and quickly spread throughout the world. Then came the war of the Desktop Publishing systems and everything else.

It was then, when from Adobe came the idea of ​​simplifying the point, rounding it to 1/72, whereby a smallest point was obtained but it was fully compatible with the English inch. Opposition to this practical idea must have been very small, let alone considering Adobe's influence is such that it has been the market leader ever since. And that is the cause of the discrepancy in measurements between the TeX point and that used by Adobe products and software manufacturers that support the standard imposed by Adobe.

As you can see in egreg’s answer, The TeXbook is an earlier piece than the domination of Adobe and its rounded pica which is called also the PostScript pica. And that's why TeX works with traditional pica points. Because it was created by a man born inside that typographic tradition (and not the European) and it was a few years before the tradition changed. Currently the PostScript pica is used by almost everyone (even unknowingly), so that Didot points and other measurement systems are practically extinct.

Nevertheless TeX is able to work with all the units mentioned in this story.

Absolute units:

dd Didot point: (1157 dd = 1238 pt)

cc cicero: (1cc = 12 dd)

pt Traditional pica point (and the default LaTeX unit)

pc Pica: (1 pc = 12 pt)

cm centimetre: (2.54 cm = 1 in)

mm millimetre: (10 mm = 1 cm)

in inch: (1 in = 72.27 pt)

bp big point or rounded point or PostScript point: (72 bp = 1 in)

sp scaled point: (65536 sp = 1 pt) The smallest length unit in TeX.

Relative units:

em the em quad, a space that is one M letter wide

ex the height of an x or the lower case letters.

These are the units that TeX supports that can be used in any document. More than what a Desktop Publishing System can withstand. As I remember, InDesign, e.g., can work with centimetres, millimetres, inches, picas and points, both PostScript and traditional, but I think not with ciceros or Didot points.

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    @Aradnix -- nice summary. i've given it a "tugboat" level editorial reading, and tidied up the english (and a few factual details) accordingly. hope you don't mind. Sep 13, 2014 at 17:03
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    @barbarabeeton Of course not, on the contrary, I am honored by this, but at the time I feel ashamed for my bad English.
    – Aradnix
    Sep 13, 2014 at 19:40
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    @Aradnix -- please don't be ashamed of your command of english. unless you learn a language as a child by talking to native speakers, it's a tough job mastering the nuances. my command of several languages other than english is good enough to read simple text, get a good meal in a restaurant, and say "thank you", but i will never achieve native fluency. (i am grateful that english is so well established in so many places that communication is actually possible.) Sep 13, 2014 at 20:05
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    @barbarabeeton Thanks for your words, I know it is a hard work, but if I could, I would like to eventually express myself almost as native, in English and some other of the languages ​​I know. For now, English is the lingua franca of our times and I also enjoy to make myself understood with people around the world in English.
    – Aradnix
    Sep 13, 2014 at 20:16
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    I’ve just recherched point sizes and history, because I have found conflicting information about the Teχ point. It is in fact 1/72.27 of the modern (25.4 mm) inch, or 800/803 of the PostScript point (1/72 inch). This is because the size of the inch/foot changed, and (as you pointed out) there were several kinds of foot around (e.g. survey, printer’s, etc). The printer’s foot was 249⁄250 of the then-normal foot, but only after the international inch/foot was defined, we get the current 1/72.27 ratio.
    – mirabilos
    Aug 11, 2015 at 15:43

The size of a printer's point was fixed at the Fifteenth Meeting of the Type Founders Association of the United States in 1866 as 0.013837 in (see this Wikipedia page.

Quoting from the TeXbook (chapter 10):

The units have been defined here so that precise conversion to sp is efficient on a wide variety of machines. In order to achieve this, TeX's “pt” has been made slightly larger than the official printer’s point, which was defined to equal exactly 0.013837 in by the American Typefounders Association in 1886 [cf. National Bureau of Standards Circular 570 (1956)]. In fact, one classical point is exactly 0.99999999 pt, so the “error” is essentially one part in 108. This is more than two orders of magnitude less than the amount by which the inch itself changed during 1959, when it shrank to 2.54 cm from its former value of (1/0.3937) cm; so there is no point in worrying about the difference. The new definition 72.27 pt = 1 in is not only better for calculation, it is also easier to remember.

At the end of the 1980's, desktop publishing systems began to spread and they used the proposal by the creators of Adobe PostScript, who arbitrarily decided that one point should be 1/72 of an inch. This was probably supposed to help computations, but clearly shows a bias towards a measurement system that's almost only used in the United States, while the rest of the world has been with the SI system for several decades. I find this decision similar to decreeing that, for helping conversions in desktop publishing, the millimeter should be redefined so that 25 mm = 1 in, which is clearly absurd.

The PostScript point is 0.3% longer than a printer's point: 72 printer's point are thus 25.3 millimeters rather than 25.4. If you look at the textwidth of article at 10pt, which is 345 printer's points, we get 121.25 millimeters, while 345 PostScript points are 121.71 millimeters. I wouldn't worry about the difference.

  • "...desktop publishing systems began to spread and they used the proposal by the creators of Adobe PostScript, who arbitrarily decided that one point should be 1/72 of an inch." Citation? Sep 13, 2014 at 9:10
  • Saying the rounding is analogous to redefining the millimeter is really not very apt. Adobe took a completely arbitrary length which bore no connection to any other length or system of measurement (except via tradition) and redefined it to fit with the Imperial system, which given the size of the US market, not to mention the various Commonwealth countries in which despite metrification, Imperial units are still in common use as well as SI units, isn't really that bad an idea. Preserving the old point for the sake of tradition is just that: for the sake of tradition.
    – Alan Munn
    Sep 13, 2014 at 16:57
  • Whether the Postscript point should have been normalized to some metric measure is a different question, and likely didn't even occur to Adobe.
    – Alan Munn
    Sep 13, 2014 at 16:58
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    @mirabilos Sorry, no. The inch was slightly changed in 1959, which had a small consequence on the printer point (this is discussed in the TeXbook), well before TeX and Postscript were born. Knuth decided to use the printer's point (72.27pt = 1in), while Warnock decided to use a different unit (also called point by him), 1/72 of an inch, in 1976 when he designed the first version of Postscript. This is why Knuth also defined the “big point” unit for use in TeX.
    – egreg
    Aug 11, 2015 at 16:55
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    @mirabilos With a foot quite different from the layman's. American units were (and are) a mess.
    – egreg
    Aug 11, 2015 at 19:51

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