For fun, I want to change the backslash's catcode from 0 to 12. However, I can't seem to make it work. Here's my current MWE, which gives an error "improper alphabetic constant":


I know that \textbackslash is not the right one, however, I can't seem to find a command for a program backslash. Could someone please help? By the way, I have the forward slash's catcode set to 0 just in case the problem is that I need to change the character for commands.

1 Answer 1


\textbackslash is just for typesetting. As the name says, it's a text command, so it just prints the character \ from the current font, and isn't of any use for anything other than that.

You are looking for:


The syntax for the \catcode primitive is \catcode<number>=<catcode>, and it sets the catcode of the character whose ASCII code is <number> to <catcode>. This means that you could also use:

\catcode 92=12

However it's a mouthful to remember all the ASCII codes, and your code becomes quite a lot less readable. To improve on that TeX allows you to specify a number using an “alphabetic constant”. To do that, the <number> should start with a `, followed by the character token you want to make a number of. Valid alphabetic constants are `a, `*, etc.

The only problem is that a catcode-0 character (here the backslash) doesn't produce a token, so neither:

\catcode`\ =12

do what you want (the first one changes the catcode of =, and the second the catcode of ). To specify these characters, TeX allows you to escape the character with a backslash, so to specify the alphabeitc constant `\ you prefix it with another backslash: `\\, so:

  • So, the ` allows you to change `\` from newline to a backslash? I didn't know that! +1 and accept
    – Someone
    May 11, 2020 at 15:42
  • Also, I knew that \textbackslash was used for typesetting. However, it was the best I could come up with.
    – Someone
    May 11, 2020 at 15:43
  • 1
    @Someone Yeah, that's a primitive TeX syntax. Any time TeX is looking for a number, if such number starts with a `, the next token can be either a character, or a character preceded by a backslash. In the case of \\ you need the preceding backslash because a single backslash doesn't make a token. Note that this works: \catcode`|=0 \catcode`\\=12 |catcode`\=3 |show\ because after the second \catcode, the backslash is just a character, so you don't have to prefix a backslash anymore. May 11, 2020 at 16:41
  • Does it mean that I could type `\\ and have it be a backslash? Or would it be a "open single quote and newline"?
    – Someone
    May 12, 2020 at 18:17
  • 1
    @Someone The latter. The special `\\ syntax only expands to 92 (the ASCII code of \) when TeX is looking for a number. Everywhere else it will mean open quote and \\. Compare the output of (\number`\\)(`\\). May 12, 2020 at 18:30

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