I am trying to learn how to use \mathchoice.

Before the solution was posted for Non-invasive replacement for \fbox?, I attempted to use mathchoice to adjust the size of the parameter before measuring its height, depth and width. To simply things, I first defined:


Then adjusted the beginning of the \fillbox macro as:


Before these changes, the output was:

enter image description here

But with the above changes I get:

enter image description here

So, what happened? To me it appears to be some problem related to the grouping due to the extra brace groups required to pass in the four parameters to \mathchoice, but don't know how to fix it. Does \mathchoice behave differently than many of the other types of conditional macros such as \iftoggle{condition}{code if true}{code if false} from the etoolbox package?


The new code is marked and the old code is left commented to simplify comparison.


  \newcommand{\SetHeightDepthWidth}[1]{%   new
      \settoheight{\fillbox@height}{#1}%   new
      \settodepth{\fillbox@depth}{#1}%     new
      \settowidth{\fillbox@width}{#1}%     new

  \ifmmode%                                             new
    \mathchoice%                                        new
        {\SetHeightDepthWidth{$\displaystyle#1$}}%      new
        {\SetHeightDepthWidth{$\textstyle#1$}}%         new
        {\SetHeightDepthWidth{$\scriptstyle#1$}}%       new
        {\SetHeightDepthWidth{$\scriptscriptstyle#1$}}% new
  \else%                                                new
    \SetHeightDepthWidth{#1}%                           new
  \fi%                                                  new
  %  \settoheight{\fillbox@height}{$#1$}%
  %  \settodepth{\fillbox@depth}{$#1$}%
  %  \settowidth{\fillbox@width}{$#1$}%
  %  \settoheight{\fillbox@height}{#1}%
  %  \settodepth{\fillbox@depth}{#1}%
  %  \settowidth{\fillbox@width}{#1}%
    \fill (0,-\fillbox@depth) rectangle (\fillbox@width,\fillbox@height);
    \fill (0,-\fillbox@depth)
          rectangle (\fillbox@width,-\fillbox@depth+.1pt);
    \fill (0,\fillbox@height)
          rectangle (\fillbox@width,\[email protected]);
    \fill (0,-\fillbox@depth)
          rectangle (.1pt,\fillbox@height);
    \fill (\fillbox@width,-\fillbox@depth)
          rectangle (\[email protected],\fillbox@height);


  \fillbox{\Delta}\fillbox{t}^{\fillbox{2}}\fillbox{)} \fillbox{+}
%            This section is not relevant to the problem here.
%$p_x \mathrel{\stackrel{_{~+}}{\leftarrow}}
%  (\frac{1}{2}\cdot a_x\cdot\Delta t^2) + (v_x\cdot\Delta t)$;\par
%$v_x \mathrel{\stackrel{_{~+}}{\leftarrow}} a_x\cdot\Delta t$;\par
  • @egreg: But then if I were to change the last condition to read {\SetHeightDepthWidth{$\textstyle#1$}} then I shouldn't I get the same output as the original code? How do I use \mathchoice to make a selection then? Feb 9, 2012 at 17:48
  • You need to put the whole thing including typesetting the math and the box into the mathchoice (which I hid in amslatex \text) you can't just put the measurement in the choice. Feb 9, 2012 at 18:00
  • 1
    You can see the effect of the local setting of the lengths in your output. All the measurement in math versions are inside a group (well four groups) and discarded at end of the group, so all the lengths are zero until you get to the ; when the text mode version sets the lengths non zero but then all boxes in the second math expression use those values. Which is why only the ; is boxed in first expression and all the boxes in the second expression are the size of the ; Feb 9, 2012 at 18:08
  • @PeterGrill: I like this approach. I, too, am puzzled by why it doesn't work the way you attempted. This seems like a really good general question. Feb 10, 2012 at 8:15
  • 1
    \mathchoice{a}{b}{c}{d} is indistinguishable from within tex from \hbox{a}\hbox{b}\hbox{c}\hbox{d} in both cases all the contents are typeset into a box 4 times, and any assignmemts happen in a local group. "Appendix G` treats the 4 boxes differently when laying out the math list to make a horizontal list, but since there are no \last... operations to deconstruct the list generated in that way you can not tell that in one case teX only uses one of the boxes. Feb 10, 2012 at 9:31

2 Answers 2


Everything I know about \mathchoice I learned from David Carlisle's accepted answer above. He explained it wonderfully. So this answer is not an attempt to replace that answer, but to amplify it. His key phrase that triggered my light bulb was "\mathchoice{a}{b}{c}{d} is indistinguishable from within tex from \hbox{a}\hbox{b}\hbox{c}\hbox{d}" which made me understand that the macro to be typeset had to go along with the \mathchoice invocation.

Because his answer is so beautifully concise, it took a while to dawn on me how to use \mathchoice in more complicated ways. To that end, I provide the command \MS that obtains/saves the current mathstyle and executes its argument. The command \SavedMathStyle can be used in the argument to recall the math style at time of invocation.

The command \MS can be used in a nested (recursive) manner, depending on whether one wishes to reset the saved math style at some midpoint in the argument to the outer invocation. The key feature of this solution is that, within the argument, the macro \SavedMathStyle will recall the math style associated with that level of nesting invocation. To make the point even more emphatic, I create an example wherein I place material inside a box in math mode, where clearly the original math style would otherwise be lost.

\def\SavedMathStyle{\csname @mstyle\m@switch\endcsname}

Inline \(\MS{\mycmd{x}{z}}\) test

displaystyle test\[\MS{\mycmd{x}{z}}\]

Recursive test (resetting mathstyle):\[\MS{\mycmd{\MS{\mycmd{x}{z}}}{y}}\]

Remaining examples keep original mathstyle throughout recursion.

Recursive test:\[\MS{\mycmd{\mycmd{x}{z}}{y}}\]

scriptsize test:\[x_{\MS{\mycmd{\mycmd{x}{z}}{y}}}\]

scriptscriptsize test:\[x_{y_{\MS{\mycmd{\mycmd{x}{z}}{y}}}}\]

Inline \(\MS{\mycmd{\mycmd{x}{z}}{y}}\) test


enter image description here

As a follow up, I would like to address Peter Grill's concerns. First, I will say that I have (as of today) adopted this approach in V1.5 of the scalerel package, because using the mathstyle package was causing incompatibilities ((Nonfatal but Symptomatic) Conflict of amsmath and mathstyle Packages). In the scalerel implementation, the invoking command has been named \ThisStyle and the recall command is named \SavedStyle (so I'm sorry for the nomenclature change through the course of this question). The following example




shows this result

enter image description here

What we see is that the outer invocation of \ThisStyle was made in \displaystyle and the inner invocation in \scriptstyle. Within the inner invocation, \SavedStyle deploys \scriptstyle and in the outer invocation, it deploys \displaystyle, even after the nested invocation in a different style.

  • 1
    I somehow feel as if this is going to have an issue with nested usage. I think that your example above works because \fbox{} created a grouping for you, and hence the redefinition of math style was kept local to that group. But I am not an expert on this subject, so perhaps there is no issue. May 16, 2013 at 23:09
  • I'll keep an eye on it, and play with it more. Thanks for the tip. And actually, my description may need to be restated. \SavedMathStyle won't use the "most recently" saved change, but the one associated with that particular level of invocation May 17, 2013 at 9:51
  • 2
    @PeterGrill With 1.5 years of reflection on your comment, the only negative side effect of "nested usage" that I've found is speed. If you nest 3 \mathchoicees, it requires 4^3 boxes to be made in the process of selecting the proper one. Jan 14, 2015 at 11:29

\mathchoice acts at the end of the math list when TeX is making a horizontal list by putting the math boxes in the right places. So the "choice" happens way after you are attempting to use the lengths. (They are being set in a group and left as zero, but you can't simply make a global assignment as the timing is all wrong.)

Look at any uses of \mathchoice (or its wrapper \mathpalette) in plain or latex.ltx. The usual idiom is that you need to put the entire command including all its arguments so, using fbox for simplicity:


would work, although usually you simplify things by defining a helper macro that takes the math style as an argument, for example in latex.ltx \smash in math mode uses this form with \mathsm@sh being a version of \smash that takes (eg) \scriptstyle as an additional argument. So something like



Or you can let the AMS take care of you


  • Where would be the right place to put the \mathchoice? Feb 10, 2012 at 8:21
  • was too long for a comment so I edited the answer. Feb 10, 2012 at 9:40
  • sorry I got the 4 branches in the \mathchoice in reverse order in my inital edit, fixed now, and extended to show \mathpalette and \text versions. Feb 10, 2012 at 14:53

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