I’ve been posting recently about how I use LaTeX for drawing syntax trees and typing IPA symbols, but I realize that not everyone is familiar with it. I’ve only been using LaTeX for all my linguistics stuff for a year and a half, but I was a huge fan within weeks and I wish I’d started earlier. I’m still learning as I go, but here are some things about LaTeX, getting started, and why/how linguists use it.
What is LaTeX?
LaTeX, pronounced /ˈlɑːtɛk/ or /ˈleɪtɛk/, not /ˈleɪtɛks/, is a totally free method of typesetting that produces advanced, customizable, and very nice-looking documents. You format your document in LaTeX’s markup syntax (like writing in HTML, Markdown, or wiki syntax) and then you use a compiler to output a pdf (like you would output a webpage using HTML etc).
This means that you need to use commands (which begin with a backslash: \) instead of buttons/menus like a word processor, but it also means that you can do lots more cool things and people can write extra packages and share them for even more advanced functions.
How to use LaTeX
Probably the easiest way to see what LaTeX looks like is by looking at a demo document from a free online LaTeX editor like writelatex.com (Try it! It won’t bite!). If you plan to actually use LaTeX a lot, you probably want to download a free program bundle (MacTeX for Mac or MikTeX for Windows) instead. You can also read more complete guides to LaTeX made by other people, but I think it’s better to try things first than to try to read a whole guide.
I’ve made a sample document with a few demos of things that linguists do in LaTeX, which you can download here as .tex (input) and here as .pdf (output). (Test things out for yourself by deleting the demo writelatex source file and copy-pasting my tex file in there instead).
Why do linguists use LaTeX?
You may have noticed that it’s easier to take notes about linguistics by hand than it is on a computer, because there are so many symbols and diagrams that are used in linguistics that are really difficult to make in a word processor.
But because LaTeX is free, open-source, and highly customizable, many wonderful people have written packages for anyone to use that let you type linguistics symbols (IPA and semantics), draw trees, and make automatically formatted and numbered example sentences.(See a sample document here.)
LaTeX is also popular among academics in general, particularly scientists, because it’s very good at displaying mathematical symbols and many academic journals use it for typesetting. You may spend a fair bit of time googling your problems at first (there are lots of resources to google for!), but you will probably spend less time in the long run fiddling with multiple programs and dragging things over by 1 pixel.
If you’re just starting out in linguistics and doing problem sets, you probably don’t want to bother with LaTeX, but if you’re writing papers or a thesis, particularly something that has several drafts, then it might be something to consider.
(Note: I’m not going to volunteer to answer LaTeX tech-support questions here, since there really are a ton of resources out there and everything I learned I discovered from googling, so you can too. There’s also a great LaTeX forum at StackExchange where you can post questions. Google is pretty good at knowing that you’re interested in the typesetting program, but unfortunately tumblr tags aren’t case-sensitive so…you’ll probably have better luck elsewhere.)