I believed that \prime is the appropriate code to insert a prime in math mode and assumed that it would be equivalent to type '. I find that \prime inserts an ugly, large prime, whereas the ' produces something ok. Is there an explanation?



$a'_{i}$ dürfen zu $x'_{i}$ nur

$a\prime_{i}$ dürfen zu $x\prime_{i}$ nur


enter image description here

  • 4
    $a'_{i}$ is actually $a^{\prime}_{i}$ – moewe Apr 13 '20 at 16:38
  • 5
    you should almost never use \prime just use ' – David Carlisle Apr 13 '20 at 16:40
  • 3
    See also tex.stackexchange.com/q/87134/35864 – moewe Apr 13 '20 at 16:41
  • 1
    I've taken the liberty of inserting a larger screenshot of your code. – Mico Apr 13 '20 at 17:38

You wrote,

I find that \prime inserts an ugly, large prime, whereas the ' produces something ok. Is there an explanation?

To address this question in depth, it's useful to check how ' (in math mode) is defined relative to \prime. Here's an excerpt from the current version (2020-02-02, patch level 5) of the LaTeX2e "kernel" -- lines 5939 to 5954 from latex.ltx, to be exact -- that provides the code that defines ' in LaTeX. (The Plain-TeX definition of ' is similar.)

{\catcode`\'=\active \global\let'\active@math@prime}

I won't claim that this code is easy to grasp. Here's the gist of what's going on.

  • The instruction


    makes the character ' ("apostrophe" or "prime") active, in the TeX sense of the word, if the character is encountered in math mode.

  • The character is let to \active@math@prime, which is defined as ^\bgroup\prim@s. Note the initiation of an exponent term via ^, followed by \bgroup -- as well as the absence, for now, of a corresponding \egroup directive.

  • \prim@s, in turn, is defined as \prime\futurelet\@let@token\pr@m@s. Finally, we encounter \prime -- yay! The \prime directive -- recall that it is executed in superscript mode, so the resulting symbol is smaller than the text-style version of \prime -- is followed by


    \futurelet\@let@token assigns the next token to \@let@token. So, what does \pr@m@s do?

  • The code for \pr@m@s covers 10 lines of code; it is by far the most complicated of the macros in this bunch. It basically tells LaTeX to compare the look-ahead token (via a couple of \ifx statements) to a number of possible alternatives. In fact, the code considers three alternatives.

    • If the look-ahead token is not equal to either ' or ^, then \egroup is issued -- meaning that the exponent term group is closed and can be processed by LaTeX -- and we're done. Whew!

    • If the next character is equal to ^ (as in, say, g'^2), code needed to handle the exponent term, including an \egroup directive, is executed. (In case you're curious: g'^2 evaluates to g^{\prime2}. If you'd rather have the square term placed a bit further up, you will need to write {g'}^2.)

    • Finally, if the next character is equal to ', then (after some more stirring of the pot...) another round of \prime\futurelet\@let@token\pr@m@s is executed, i.e., another \prime directive is executed followed by some more looking ahead.

Remembering that \bgroup and \egroup evaluate to { and }, respectively, we come to the following conclusion: the code assures that u'v gets interpreted as u^{\prime}v, w''x gets interpreted as w^{\prime\prime}x, f''' gets interpreted as f^{\prime\prime\prime}, etc. What's really important is to notice that w''x it NOT interpreted as w^{\prime}^{\prime}x, as that would trigger a dreaded "Double superscript" error.

In short, (a) typing f\prime\prime does not trigger an error message but is most definitely incorrect from a typographic perspective; (b) f^{\prime\prime} is both typographically and syntactically correct but also exceedingly tedious; (c) f'' is both correct and easy. Can you guess which method is recommended? For what it's worth, my impression is that Donald Knuth intended users to input f' and f'' all along.

  • 1
    One further consideration, regarding the size of the bare \prime. Occasionally, not very often, a prime is used as a subscript. By providing a "text-size" prime shape, it can be used very easily as either a superscript or subscript in the expected size. And yes, I am sure that Knuth intended users to input f' and f'' -- after all, he and his secretary were the first users, entering the text for The Art of Computer Programming, where it would both streamline entry and yield a nicely readable file. – barbara beeton Apr 13 '20 at 22:23
  • In ConTeXt (and maybe in the LaTeX Unicode engines) the input f' actually becomes 𝑓′ with U+1D453 MATHEMATICAL ITALIC SMALL F and U+2032 PRIME. – Henri Menke Apr 13 '20 at 23:11
  • 1
    @HenriMenke - Thanks. To those of us :-) not as familiar with the difference between the "ordinary" math-italic lowercase letter "f" and U+1D453 MATHEMATICAL ITALIC SMALL F, could you say a word (or maybe post a separate answer) on this subject? I'm sure quite a few people (me included!) would find this very interesting. – Mico Apr 14 '20 at 1:16
  • @barbarabeeton - Many thanks for offering this historically very valuable first-hand reflection. – Mico Apr 14 '20 at 1:18
  • 1
    Now I (mostly) understand what is going on. I did not expect that much complication and the answer is overwhelming, but clear enough documented to be understandable! Again, thank you very much! – user855443 Apr 15 '20 at 8:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.