consider the following MWE:





this works fine, the output is xX2 as expected.

When I now enable the mathtools package, I obtain the following error:

Package: graphics 2016/07/10 v1.0t Standard LaTeX Graphics (DPC,SPQR)

! Missing number, treated as zero.
<to be read again> 
l.33 \catcode`\^^
A number should have been here; I inserted `0'.
(If you can't figure out why I needed to see a number,
look up `weird error' in the index to The TeXbook.)

(At the beginning of the graphics package, which is used by mathtools, there is some catcode-voodoo which seems to conflict with my \catcode...)

possible solution 1

When I now move the two lines \catcode... and \let... after the \begin{document}, everything is fine again. I need them, however, to stay in the preamble, so this does not solve the problem for me.

possible solution 2

I tried wrapping the \catcode... and \let... inside an \AtBeginDocument, but then I get:

! Missing control sequence inserted.
<inserted text> 
l.11 \begin{document}

Please don't say `\def cs{...}', say `\def\cs{...}'.
I've inserted an inaccessible control sequence so that your
definition will be completed without mixing me up too badly.
You can recover graciously from this error, if you're
careful; see exercise 27.2 in The TeXbook.

! Undefined control sequence.
l.12    $x^


I had the, maybe stupid, idea to simplify the work with upright and italic sub- and superscripts. Until now, I had


for stuff like k\sub{b} and f_i. In combination with my question here I managed get equivalent output with k__b and f_i: when I double the underscore, I get upright subscripts like with my \sub command, and it's super fast to type/change. It also works with superscripts (^ and ^^), but only if I change the catcode/let the caret after the preamble, so I cannot bundle my code neatly inside a package.

  • Changing the category code of ^ in the preamble? Never do it. You can do it in \AtBeginDocument, but it requires \lowercase trickery. It would be better if you explain your aim in greater detail; for instance, do you need the active ^ only in math mode?
    – egreg
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 12:24
  • @egreg: I added more information my question, please see above. Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 12:36

1 Answer 1


What's the problem in changing the category code of ^ in the preamble? That some packages load files at begin document and these files might contain constructions such as


that are used to make byte 1 into a comment character or some `\^^M trickery.

You can set the catcode in the preamble, but delaying it with \AtBeginDocument (be sure to do it after loading all packages):


The \lowercase trick is explained elsewhere on the site, see The \lowercase trick. On the other hand, if the definition of ^ as an active character is only needed in math mode, it's better to make it only math active, see Underscore in textmode vs mathmode

\AtBeginDocument{\mathcode`\^="8000 }
  • wow, thank you! Concerning my use case with the ^^, it does not work with your math active solution. E.g. x^^a would lead to x!. Apparently the math active catcode does not alter the special meaning of ^^ as escape sequence, as would a simple \active? Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 12:47
  • @ralfix Exactly so.
    – egreg
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 12:55

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