I am not too sure just by reading the manual as to the subtle differences between the .initial and .default PGF key types. Can someone explain and demonstrate the differences with a minimal example?


They're for two different things: A key defined using /.initial=<value or string> is a value-storing key, with the initial value set to <value or string>.

The /.default keyword defines what value will be used as the argument for a key defined with /.code=<code> if no argument is provided.

The two things are similar, but not equivalent. A key can at the same time have a value, which can be queried with \pgfkeysvalueof{/key}, and a code, which will be run when you just call the key using \pgfkeys{/key}.

If no .code is defined, you could use either .initial or .default with pretty much the same behaviour: you set the value using \pgfkeys{/key/.initial=value}or \pgfkeys{/key/.default=value}, and query the value using \pgfkeys{/key}. However, if you have defined a .code, as well as a value using .initial, to query the value you need to call \pgfkeysvalueof{/key}.


%% Case 1: We want a key to store a value

% Just passing a value to an undefined key fails:

% It first needs to be initialised

% Then we can get the value

% After the key has been initialised, we can change the stored value using simple assignments

%% Case 2: We want a key to execute code using the argument
\pgfkeys{secondkey/.code=Your argument: \textbf{#1}}
\pgfkeys{secondkey=Some words}

% If we don't use an argument, it's assumed to be empty

% We can provide a default value to be used if no argument is provided:

% Let's define a .code key that just returns the argument...
% ...and give it an initial value...
% ...and a default argument

% If we query the value, we get "green"
% If we run the code, we get "red"

  • 1
    Does tikz have a reason for this semantics, ie, for separating .initial from .default? They seem to serve the same purpose: if there is no user-supplied value, use initial or default value. – Ahmed Musa Apr 5 '12 at 16:26
  • 1
    @AhmedMusa: The value stored in a key and the code it runs are two different things. I've edited the example. Also, they don't really serve the same purpose: .initial initialises a key with a value, once you've assigned a different value to the key, the initial value is lost. The .default value stays around, even if you call the key with a different argument. – Jake Apr 5 '12 at 16:48
  • I think there is an existence issue as well. Non-existing keys originated by /.initial would be assumed as empty. However, if you want to use /.value required it seems that the /.default is the way to go. I am just guessing by the way I have to check once again. – percusse Apr 5 '12 at 16:54
  • @Jake the /.default also applies for the /.style keys (you only mention /.code). I know that there is no implementation difference (from a user perspective), however for future readers might I suggest to add that as well to disclose any ambiguities. – zeroth Apr 5 '12 at 17:22
  • Hey @Jake. Your answer stops mid-sentence. Perhaps you could complete it? – Faheem Mitha Jul 14 '19 at 9:40

Although this does not specifically add anything to the answer already provided, the following example helped me understand the difference more intuitively:





%% Create the keys, default values, etc.
  /mythingy/.is family, /mythingy,
  usecolor/.default = green,
  usecolor/.code = {You have chosen to use the color #1.},
  usecolor/.initial = purple,

%% Create a command that will use the keys
  \pgfkeys{/mythingy, #1}   %% The usecolor/.code is executed
  \pgfkeysvalueof{/mythingy/usecolor}   %% Retrieves only the VALUE of the usecolor key

%% Use the command along with the keys in various different manners

\textbf{Attempt 1}:\\
%% Here, the usecolor/.code is executed using "blue" as the argument


\textbf{Attempt 2}:\\
%% Here, the usecolor/.code is execute using the /.default argument value "green"


\textbf{Attempt 3}:\\
%% Here, the usecolor key is initialized to the /.initial value "purple"
%% However, the usecolor/.code is not executed !!!


which outputs to:

enter image description here

In understanding this behavior, it is very important to understand the conceptual difference between the VALUE of a key and an ARGUMENT for the code associated to that key.

I could imagine this distinction being used in the following manner (see code below), although this example is grotesque (in my opinion) in the sense that it should use a distinct second key radius to actually control the radius:





  /mypainter/.is family, /mypainter,
  drawcircle/.default = true,
  drawcircle/.code = {%
        \draw (0,0) circle[radius=\pgfkeysvalueof{/mypainter/drawcircle}];
  drawcircle/.initial = 1cm,

  Executing {\ttfamily drawcircle/.code}: \pgfkeys{/mypainter, #1}
  Value of key {\ttfamily drawcircle}: \pgfkeysvalueof{/mypainter/drawcircle}

\textbf{Attempt 1}:\\


\textbf{Attempt 2}:\\


\textbf{Attempt 3}:\\
%% The order of the "keys" is important here (try switching the two)
\mypainter[drawcircle/.initial=2cm, drawcircle]


\textbf{Attempt 4}:\\
%% Notice the drawcircle/.initial now remains set to 2cm !!!


\textbf{Attempt 5}:\\


The output to that last bit of code is:

Output for the drawcircle example

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