I have this very basic document:

Reference \ref{a}

However after compiling it several times, the document I obtain only has "Reference" and not "Reference 1". What am I missing?


You are referencing nothing, since there is no counter increased with \refstepcounter for that small document. \label needs \refstepcounter, since that macro defines \@currentlabel, which holds the counter value (or better: reference format) (Of course, \@currentlabel can be defined beforehand in order to create 'fake' labels)

Now, latex.ltx defines an empty \@currentlabel before \begin{document} and that information is used by \label, so you're seeing Reference and not Reference 1.

The .aux file of that tiny OP document is tiny too:


There is the label name a and the cross-reference information after the name, i.e. {{}{1}}. The first brace-pair inside there is empty here whereas the second one has 1 as content, this is the page number, but not the reference number as requested -- LaTeX wrote an empty \@currentlabel content to the .aux file.

Here is the relevant code from latex.ltx (lines 4089f), comments by me.

         {\string\newlabel{#1}{{\@currentlabel}{\thepage}}}% Use `\@currentlabel`
       {\csname p@#1\endcsname\csname the#1\endcsname}% Define `\@currentlabel`
\def\@currentlabel{}% Empty definition at the beginning. 

Assuming a standard document class like article, for example \section (not \section*) uses \refstepcounter{section} internally (actually it is \@sect that calls that macro, but let us ignore this for a moment, also the fact that secnumdepth must have the appropiate value) and following example will provide a reference:


Reference \ref{a}

enter image description here

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LaTeX's \label-\ref cross-referencing mechanism depends on the \label instruction being associated with some counter variable -- this could be a counter associated with a figure or table environment, as well as with \section, \subsection etc headers -- being incremented. (The incrementing generally takes place "behind the scenes" and isn't visible to the casual writer.)

If, for some reason, you do NOT want to create a cross-reference of the \label-\ref variety, you should look into loading the hyperref package and using its \hypertarget-\hyperlink cross-referencing mechanism.

Both the \hypertarget and \hyperlink macros take 2 arguments -- not 1 as is the case with \label and \ref. Consider the following simple code:

Reference \hyperlink{item:a}{item a}

Observe that the first arguments of the \hypertarget and associated \hyperlink instructions are (in fact, must be!) the same.

Upon compilation, one gets a two-page document. In the compiled document, if you click on the string "item a" in the second page, the viewer should take you to the "a" string on the first page. (Observe that the hyperlink is, by construction of the example, not directly visible since the link color was set to black in the document's preamble.)

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