I am having a strange bug when using nested superscripts and subscripts in inline math (displaystyle works fine). This behaviour is the same independently of the font used or the compiler (orginally with luaLaTeX with unicode-math but also occurs with plain pdfLaTeX


Some text is \(\omega_{m_{ij}}^r\) and \(\omega_{m_{ij}}^{r_{ij+1}}\)


enter image description here

Any ideas how to fix this?

EDIT: compare with the output with \everymath{\displaystyle}

enter image description here

  • 1
    Your image looks OK to me, what do you want it to look like? Jan 5, 2013 at 1:35
  • 2
    I guess that is a feature, not a bug.
    – mafp
    Jan 5, 2013 at 1:38
  • 2
    You have to think in terms of Boxes here, Latex arranges them always in a way so they don't overlap. Since you add an subscript index to your superscript r, its box grows and Tex has to push it upward to avoid intersection with the box of the m. If you were to add a superscript to m you will notice that this will also push the upper box further up. This is entirely correct though.
    – Max
    Jan 5, 2013 at 1:42
  • 2
    Yes inline math always uses a more cramped style to try to ensure that it fits in the paragraph without disturbing the line spacing. For the same reason inline sum limits are in subscript position rather than below the summation symbol. Jan 5, 2013 at 1:44
  • 1
    The fact that the \displaystyled output is different, is because in this case Tex doesn't care about the lineheight anymore and thus pushes the m_{ij} further down. This means the r_{ij+1} can come down to a height closer to where it would put it anyway because now there is enough room. This is normally not the case, because Tex will try to stick to the normal lineheight as much as possible, which leads to the behaviour before the edit.
    – Max
    Jan 5, 2013 at 1:46

3 Answers 3


I think you can justly regard this strange behaviour as kind of a bug in TeX's sub- and superscript positioning algorithm; it doesn't make sense that both the sub- and the superscript are raised. See below for some suggestions on how to fix the problem. At the end I offer a new positioning algorithm, and I compare it with the old algorithm. (Sorry for the length of this answer!)

What's happening?

The positioning algorithm is laid down in Rule 18 of Appendix G in the TeXbook. Here's what's happening: first, tentative positions of the sub- and superscripts are defined (Rules 18c and 18d). The problem arises in Rule 18e: only if the sub- and superscript are too close together (less than four times the default rule thickness, according to the tentative positions), TeX makes sure that the bottom of the superscript is at least as high above the baseline as 80% of the x-height. In this case, the superscript may be raised more than necessary for achieving the minimum distance of four times the default rule thickness, and then the subscript will be raised, too!

To illustrate the problem, I use an m as a subscript, and a rule with height 0 and different depths as superscripts:


In the first case, the depth is 0.34ex, in the second case it's 0.35ex: an imperceptible difference leading to rather different outputs. I don't think that this behaviour is desirable. Note that this only happens due to the m having a small height, not for letters like f with ascenders.

$\test{0.34}$ versus $\test{0.35}$

Let me point out that the same effect can occur in \displaystyle: then superscripts are set a bit higher by default so that the effect appears at a depth of 0.46ex versus 0.47ex. So it is a case of good luck that \displaystyle helps in your case (as observed in David's answer). Let me point out that in "cramped" style (as used under \overline and \sqrt) the effect can be quite drastic: $\overline{a_n^ia_n^j}$ gives

output of \overline

Possible ways to fix the problem

I see at least three completely different ways out of the problem; I'm not sure which one to prefer. The first idea (see David's second comment to this answer) is to add a strut to the subscript to give it so much height that TeX won't raise it. The following code defines a \scriptstrut that is just large enough; however, I think that the output is still not optimal: the second superscript is raised too much.

output: superscript raised too much

  \check@mathfonts               % initialize math fonts
  \dimen@=\fontdimen5\textfont2  % x-height
  \multiply\dimen@ by 4
  \divide  \dimen@ by 5          % 80% of the x-height
  \advance \dimen@ by \fontdimen17\textfont2
  \multiply\@tempdima by 4       % 4x the default rule thickness
  \advance \dimen@ by -\@tempdima
$\omega_{m_{ij}}^r$ versus $\omega_{m_{ij}\scriptstrut}^{r_{ij+1}}$

Now you'd have to add a \scriptstrut to all the subscripts that are raised too high. One could try to automatize this by making the underscore _ active (see also mafp's second comment), but it's not easy to do this in a safe way: note that, e.g., $a_\frac12$ is valid (albeit not recommendable) TeX code.

Here's my second idea: by default, TeX places subscripts lower if a superscript is present. You can prevent this by adding

  \check@mathfonts %initialize math fonts

to your preamble. This doesn't completely suppress the problem, but it makes it a lot less visible. However, there could be other side effects.

The new positioning algorithm

Probably the best way is to use another algorithm altogether for the vertical positioning of a sub-/superscript combination. I offer such a new algorithm in the code below, where I define an \nss command (like "natural sub- and superscripts") that takes three arguments, the 2nd being the sub- and the 3rd being the superscript of the 1st.


The rules I use are as follows, keeping as close to the original algorithm as possible: Use the tentative default positions as the TeX engine would do it. To achieve that the sub- and superscript are at least four times the default rule thickness apart, raise the superscript, but only as long as its bottom is at most 80% of the x-height above the baseline. If the distance between sub- and superscript is still too small, lower the subscript.

  \multiply\dimen@ by 4             % 4x the default rule thickness
  \advance \dimen@ by \ht0
  \advance \dimen@ by -\fontdimen17\textfont2
  \@tempdima=\fontdimen5\textfont2  % x-height
  \multiply\@tempdima by 4
  \divide  \@tempdima by 5          % 80% of the x-height
  % Modifications are only necessary if the top of the subscript is not that high:
    \ht0=0pt                        % don't let the subscript interfere
    \divide\@tempdima by 4          % 25% of the x-height
    \advance \dimen@ by -\@tempdima % if >0, add to depth of superscript!
      \advance\@tempdima by \dimen@
   Original: $\omega_{m_{ij}}^{r_{ij+1}}$,\,
\= improved: $\nss{\omega}{m_{ij}}{r_{ij+1}}$. \\
   Original: $\overline{a_n^i a_n^j}\,$,
\> improved: $\overline{\nss{a}{n}{i} \nss{a}{n}{j}}\,$.

Finally, a somewhat more extensive comparison between the original and the improved algorithm. I use a box of width 2pt as a subscript and a box of width 1pt as a superscript. The subscript has varying heights (but depth 0pt), the superscript has varying depths (but height 0pt). You see a lot of wobbling with the original algorithm!

original versus improved

\newcommand*\nss[3]{...} % insert code from above!!!
  \leavevmode\rlap{Original:}\hphantom{$\compare\oss1$}\qquad Improved: \par
  $#1{\oneline2}$ \par
  $#1{\oneline3}$ \par
  $#1{\oneline4}$ \par}
\textbf{Cramped style} \par
\threelines\cramped    \medskip
\textbf{Text style}    \par
\threelines\textstyle  \medskip
\textbf{Display style} \par
  • +1 thanks for tracking down exactly which rule it is, was too tired last night to track through ap G:-) Jan 5, 2013 at 12:25
  • While this is a neat explanation, the question of the OP was how to fix that. Any idea?
    – mafp
    Jan 5, 2013 at 13:02
  • 2
    @mafp well as it's a documented feature of the tex engine it will not change for any system called TeX, but as Hendrick notes subscripts with more height work more consistently so you could use _{\strut m} for example to so that all the subscripts had the same (invisible) height. (By the way the OP ought to accept this answer rather than mine:-) Jan 5, 2013 at 13:57
  • @DavidCarlisle Yes, we can not patch TeX, but it seems one might whip up a workaround for this problem, with an active underscore, some \mathstrut, some box measuring... That would be a real answer to this question. I would add a bounty for that, but I can't grant one (either because the question is too new, or because it has an accepted answer?). And yes, Hendrik's answer is better than yours, so far.
    – mafp
    Jan 5, 2013 at 14:46
  • @David: Thanks for the thumbs up :-) Note that a \strut has the disadvantage of an additional depth that might be undesirable. But I don't know myself yet how a better algorithm would look like. Jan 5, 2013 at 21:13

The default positions of sub and superscripts are closer to the baseline in textstyle as TeX tries to maximise the chance that the expression does not disturb the paragraph line spacing.

Your first example is the standard setting for inline math, however with the larger scripts caused by the subscripting, TeX has to move them further apart.

This is standard layout, however you can use \displaystyle to force the less cramped setting even in inline math if line spacing is not a concern.

  • Thanks David, I would have understood the behaviour if it just raised the subscript, increasing the space between the 2 but here is raises both by pretty much the same amount. This means that it brings the subscript block higher than it would be in displaystyle. I will indeed use \displaystyle in the second example as this looks the most consistent with the rest.
    – ArTourter
    Jan 5, 2013 at 2:37
  • yes the exact rules take up most of appendix G and they do what they do:-) Jan 5, 2013 at 2:38

Use the subdepth package; i wrote a discussion of the issue in a faq answer

  • thanks for the comment, however in the example I have, subdepth doesn't have much effect. when compiling using pdfLaTeX only the subscript of the first one gets raised but the superscripts are still not aligned. And when compiled with LuaLaTeX, it has no effect whatsoever.
    – ArTourter
    Jan 16, 2013 at 23:57
  • The subdepth package has a completely different purpose: it takes care that the vertical position of subscripts is the same if there's a superscript or not. Jan 17, 2013 at 10:45

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