The TeXmacs format

1.The TeXmacs format

1.TeXmacs trees

All TeXmacs documents or document fragments can be thought of as trees. For instance, the tree

typically represents the formula


Internal nodes of TeXmacs trees

Each of the internal nodes of a TeXmacs tree is a string symbol and each of the leafs is an ordinary string. A string symbol is different from a usual string only from the efficiency point of view: TeXmacs represents each symbol by a unique number, so that it is extremely fast to test weather two symbols are equal.

Leafs of TeXmacs trees

Currently, all strings are represented using the universal TeXmacs encoding. This encoding coincides with the Cork font encoding for all characters except “<” and “>”. Character sequences starting with “<” and ending with “>” are interpreted as special extension characters. For example, <alpha> stands for the letter . The semantics of characters in the universal TeXmacs encoding does not depend on the context (currently, cyrillic characters are an exception, but this should change soon). In other words, the universal TeXmacs encoding may be seen as an analogue of Unicode. In the future, we might actually switch to Unicode.

The string leafs either contain ordinary text or special data. TeXmacs supports the following atomic data types:

Boolean numbers

Either true or false.


Sequences of digits which may be preceded by a minus sign.

Floating point numbers

Specified using the usual scientific notation.


Floating point numbers followed by a length unit, like 29.7cm or 2fn.

Serialization and preferred syntax for editing

When storing a document as a file on your hard disk or when copying a document fragment to the clipboard, TeXmacs trees have to be represented as strings. The conversion without loss of information of abstract TeXmacs trees into strings is called serialization and the inverse process parsing. TeXmacs provides three ways to serialize trees, which correspond to the standard TeXmacs format, the XML format and the Scheme format.

However, it should be emphasized that the preferred syntax for modifying TeXmacs documents is the screen display inside the editor. If that seems surprising to you, consider that a syntax is a way to represent information in a form suitable to understanding and modification. The on-screen typeset representation of a document, together with its interactive behaviour, is a particularly concrete syntax. Moreover, in the DocumentSource menu, you may find different ways to customize the way documents are viewed, such as different levels of informative flags and a “source tree” mode for editing style files.

2.TeXmacs documents

Whereas TeXmacs document fragments can be general TeXmacs trees, TeXmacs documents are trees of a special form which we will describe now. The root of a TeXmacs document is necessarily a document tag. The children of this tag are necessarily of one of the following forms:

(TeXmacs version)

This mandatory tag specifies the version of TeXmacs which was used to save the document.

(part of a project)

An optional project to which the document belongs.


(style and packages)

An optional style and additional packages for the document.

(body of the document)

This mandatory tag specifies the body of your document.

(initial environment)

Optional specification of the initial environment for the document, with information about the page size, margins, etc.. The table is of the form <collection|binding-1||binding-n>. Each binding-i is of the form <associate|var-i|val-i> and associates the initial value val-i to the environment variable var-i. The initial values of environment variables which do not occur in the table are determined by the style file and packages.


An optional list of all valid references to labels in the document. Even though this information can be automatically recovered by the typesetter, this recovery requires several passes. In order to make the behaviour of the editor more natural when loading files, references are therefore stored along with the document.

The table is of a similar form as above. In this case a tuple is associated to each label. This tuple is either of the form <tuple|content|page-nr> or <tuple|content|page-nr|file>. The content corresponds to the displayed text when referring to the label, page-nr to the corresponding page number, and the optional file to the file where the label was defined (this is only used when the file is part of a project).

(auxiliary data attached to the file)

This optional tag specifies all auxiliary data attached to the document. Usually, such auxiliary data can be recomputed automatically from the document, but such recomputations may be expensive and even require tools which are not necessarily installed on your system. The table, which is specified in a similar way as above, associates auxiliary content to a key. Standard keys include bib, toc, idx, gly, etc.

Example 1. An article with the simple text “hello world!” is represented as

3.Default serialization

Documents are generally written to disk using the standard TeXmacs syntax (which corresponds to the .tm and .ts file extensions). This syntax is designed to be unobtrusive and easy to read, so the content of a document can be easily understood from a plain text editor. For instance, the formula (?) is represented by


On the other hand, TeXmacs syntax makes style files difficult to read and is not designed to be hand-edited: whitespace has complex semantics and some internal structures are not obviously presented. Do not edit documents (and especially style files) in the TeXmacs syntax unless you know what you are doing.

Main serialization principle

The TeXmacs format uses the special characters <, |, >, \ and / in order to serialize trees. By default, a tree like


is serialized as


If one of the arguments is a multi-paragraph tree (which means in this context that it contains a document tag or a collection tag), then an alternative long form is used for the serialization. If f takes only multi-paragraph arguments, then the tree would be serialized as


In general, arguments which are not multi-paragraph are serialized using the short form. For instance, if n=5 and x3 and x5 are multi-paragraph, but not x1, x2 and x4, then (?) is serialized as


The escape sequences \<less\>, \|, \<gtr\> and \\ may be used to represent the characters <, |, > and \. For instance, is serialized as \<alpha\>+\<beta\>.

Formatting and whitespace

The document and concat primitives are serialized in a special way. The concat primitive is serialized as usual concatenation. For instance, the text “an important note” is serialized as

an <em|important> note

The document tag is serialized by separating successive paragraphs by double newline characters. For instance, the quotation

Ik ben de blauwbilgorgel.

Als ik niet wok of worgel,

is serialized as

  Ik ben de blauwbilgorgel.

  Als ik niet wok of worgel,

Notice that whitespace at the beginning and end of paragraphs is ignored. Inside paragraphs, any amount of whitespace is considered as a single space. Similarly, more than two newline characters are equivalent to two newline characters. For instance, the quotation might have been stored on disk as

  Ik ben de           blauwbilgorgel.

  Als ik niet wok of          worgel,

The space character may be explicitly represented through the escape sequence “\ ”. Empty paragraphs are represented using the escape sequence “\;”.

Raw data

The raw-data primitive is used inside TeXmacs for the representation of binary data, like image files included into the document. Such binary data is serialized as


where the binary-data is a string of hexadecimal numbers which represents a string of bytes.

4.XML serialization

For compatibility reasons with the XML technology, TeXmacs also supports the serialization of TeXmacs documents in the XML format. However, the XML format is generally more verbose and less readable than the default TeXmacs format. In order to save or load a file in the XML format (using the .tmml extension), you may use FileExportXML resp. FileImportXML.

It should be noticed that TeXmacs documents do not match a predefined DTD, since the appropriate DTD for a document depends on its style. The XML format therefore merely provides an XML representation for TeXmacs trees. The syntax has both been designed to be close to the tree structure and use conventional XML notations which are well supported by standard tools.

The encoding for strings

The leafs of TeXmacs trees are translated from the universal TeXmacs encoding into Unicode. Characters without Unicode equivalents are represented as entities (in the future, we rather plan to create a tmsym tag for representing such characters).

XML representation of regular tags

Trees with a single child are simply represented by the corresponding XML tag. In the case when a tree has several children, then each child is enclosed into a tm-arg tag. For instance, is simply represented as


whereas the fraction is represented as


In the above example, the whitespace is ignored. Whitespace may be preserved by setting the standard xml:space attribute to preserve.

Special tags

Some tags are represented in a special way in XML. The concat tag is simply represented by a textual concatenation. For instance, is represented as


The document tag is not explicitly exported. Instead, each paragraph argument is enclosed within a tm-par tag. For instance, the quotation

Ik ben de blauwbilgorgel.

Als ik niet wok of worgel,

is represented as

    Ik ben de blauwbilgorgel.
    Als ik niet wok of worgel,

A with tag with only string attributes and values is represented using the standard XML attribute notation. For instance, “some blue text” would be represented as

some <with color="blue">blue</with> text

Conversely, TeXmacs provides the attr primitive in order to represent attributes of XML tags. For instance, the XML fragment

some <mytag beast="heary">special</mytag> text

would be imported as “some <my-tag|<attr|beast|heary>|special> text”. This will make it possible, in principle, to use TeXmacs as an editor of general XML files.

5.Scheme serialization

Users may write their own extensions to TeXmacs in the Scheme extension language. In that context, TeXmacs trees are usually represented by Scheme expressions. The Scheme syntax was designed to be predictable, easy to hand-edit, and expose the complete internal structure of the document. For instance, the formula (?) is represented by

(with "mode" "math" (concat "x+y+" (frac "1" "2") "+" (sqrt "y+z")))

The Scheme representation may also be useful in order to represent complex macros with a lot of programatic content. Finally, Scheme is the safest format when incorporating TeXmacs snippets into emails. Indeed, both the standard TeXmacs format and the XML serialization may be quite sensitive to white-space.

In order to save or load a document in Scheme format, you may use FileExportScheme resp. FileImportScheme. Files saved in Scheme format can easily be processed by external Scheme programs, in the same way as files saved in XML format can easily be processed by tools for processing XML, like XSLT.

In order to copy a document fragment to an email in Scheme format, you may use EditCopy toScheme. Similarly, you may paste external Scheme fragments into TeXmacs using EditPaste fromScheme. The Scheme format may also used interactively inside Scheme sessions or interactive commands. For instance, typing ⌘X followed by the interactive command

(insert '(frac "1" "2"))

inserts the fraction


at the current cursor position.

6.The typesetting process

In order to understand the TeXmacs document format well, it is useful to have a basic understanding about how documents are typeset by the editor. The typesetter mainly rewrites logical TeXmacs trees into physical boxes, which can be displayed on the screen or on paper (notice that boxes actually contain more information than is necessary for their rendering, such as information about how to position the cursor inside the box or how to make selections).

The global typesetting process can be subdivided into two major parts (which are currently done at the same stage, but this may change in the future): evaluation of the TeXmacs tree using the stylesheet language, and the actual typesetting.

The typesetting primitives are designed to be very fast and they are built-in into the editor. For instance, one has typesetting primitives for horizontal concatenations (concat), page breaks (page-break), mathematical fractions (frac), hyperlinks (hlink), and so on. The precise rendering of many of the typesetting primitives may be customized through the built-in environment variables. For instance, the environment variable color specifies the current color of objects, par-left the current left margin of paragraphs, etc.

The stylesheet language allows the user to write new primitives (macros) on top of the built-in primitives. It contains primitives for defining macros, conditional statements, computations, delayed execution, etc. The stylesheet language also provides a special extern tag which offers you the full power of the Scheme extension language in order to write macros.

It should be noticed that user-defined macros have two aspects. On the one hand they usually perform simple rewritings. For instance, the macro


is a shortcut in order to produce sequences like . When macros perform simple rewritings like in this example, the children var, from and to of the seq tag remain accessible from within the editor. In other words, you can position the cursor inside them and modify them. User defined macros also have a synthetic or computational aspect. For instance, the dots of a seq tag as above cannot be edited by the user. Similarly, the macro


serves an exclusively computational purpose. As a general rule, synthetic macros are sometimes easier to write, but the more accessibility is preserved, the more natural it becomes for the user to edit the markup.

It should be noticed that TeXmacs also produces some auxiliary data as a byproduct of the typesetting product. For instance, the correct values of references and page numbers, as well as tables of contents, indexes, etc. are determined during the typesetting stage and memorized at a special place. Even though auxiliary data may be determined automatically from the document, it may be expensive to do so (one typically has to retypeset the document). When the auxiliary data are computed by an external plug-in, then it may even be impossible to perform the recomputations on certain systems. For these reasons, auxiliary data are carefully memorized and stored on disk when you save your work.

7.Data relation descriptions

The rationale behind D.R.D.s

One major advantage of TeXmacs is that the editor uses general trees as its data format. Like for XML, this choice has the advantages of being simple to understand and making documents easy to manipulate by generic tools. However, when using the editor for a particular purpose, the data format usually needs to be restricted to a subset of the set of all possible trees.

In XML, one uses Data Type Definitions (D.T.D.s) in order to formally specify a subset of the generic XML format. Such a D.T.D. specifies when a given document is valid for a particular purpose. For instance, one has D.T.D.s for documents on the web (XHTML), for mathematics (MathML), for two-dimensional graphics (SVG) and so on. Moreover, up to a certain extent, XML provides mechanisms for combining such D.T.D.s. Finally, a precise description of a D.T.D. usually also provides some kind of reference manual for documents of a certain type.

In TeXmacs, we have started to go one step further than D.T.D.s: besides being able to decide whether a given document is valid or not, it is also very useful to formally describe certain properties of the document. For instance, in an interactive editor, the numerator of a fraction may typically be edited by the user (we say that it is accessible), whereas the URL of a hyperlink is only editable on request. Similarly, certain primitives like itemize correspond to block content, whereas other primitives like sqrt correspond to inline content. Finally, certain groups of primitives, like chapter, section, subsection, etc. behave similarly under certain operations, like conversions.

A Data Relation Description (D.R.D.) consists of a Data Type Definition, together with additional logical properties of tags or document fragments. These logical properties are stated using so called Horn clauses, which are also used in logical programming languages such as Prolog. Contrary to logical programming languages, it should nevertheless be relatively straightforward to determine the properties of tags or document fragments, so that certain database techniques can be used for efficient implementations. At the moment, we only started to implement this technology (and we are still using lots of C++ hacks instead of what has been said above), so a more complete formal description of D.R.D.s will only be given at a later stage.

One major advantage of the use of D.R.D.s is that it is not necessary to establish rigid hierarchies of object classes like in object oriented programming. This is particularly useful in our context, since properties like accessibility, inline-ness, etc. are quite independent one from another. In fact, where D.T.D.s may be good enough for the description of passive documents, more fine-grained properties are often useful when manipulating documents in a more interactive way.

Current D.R.D. properties and applications

Currently, the D.R.D. of a document contains the following information:

In the near future, the following properties will be added:

The above information is used (among others) for the following applications:

Determination of the D.R.D. of a document

TeXmacs associate a unique D.R.D. to each document. This D.R.D. is determined in two stages. First of all, TeXmacs tries to heuristically determine D.R.D. properties of user-defined tags, or tags which are defined in style files. For instance, when the user defines a tag like

<assign|hi|<macro|name|Hello name!>>

TeXmacs automatically notices that hi is a macro with one element, so it considers to be the only possible arity of the hi tag. Notice that the heuristic determination of the D.R.D. is done interactively: when defining a macro inside your document, its properties will automatically be put into the D.R.D. (assuming that you give TeXmacs a small amount of free time of the order of a second; this minor delay is used to avoid compromising the reactivity of the editor).

Sometimes the heuristically defined properties are inadequate. For this case, TeXmacs provides the drd-props tag in order to manually override the default properties.

8.TeXmacs lengths

A simple TeXmacs length is a number followed by a length unit, like 1cm or 1.5mm. TeXmacs supports three main types of units:

Absolute units

The length of an absolute unit like cm or pt on print is fixed.

Context dependent units

Context-dependent length units depend on the current font or other environment variables. For instance, 1ex corresponds to the height of the “x” character in the current font and 1par correspond to the current paragraph width.

User defined units

Any nullary macro, whose name contains only lower case roman letters followed by -length, and which returns a length, can be used as a unit itself. For instance, the following macro defines the dm length:


Furthermore, length units can be stretchable. A stretchable length is represented by a triple of rigid lengths: a minimal length, a default length and a maximal length. When justifying lines or pages, stretchable lengths are automatically sized so as to produce nicely looking layout.

In the case of page breaking, the page-flexibility environment provides additional control over the stretchability of white space. When setting the page-flexibility to , stretchable spaces behave as usual. When setting the page-flexibility to , stretchable spaces become rigid. For other values, the behaviour is linear.

Absolute length units


One centimeter.


One millimeter.


One inch.


The standard typographic point corresponds to of an inch.


A big point corresponds to of an inch.


The Didôt point equals 1/72 of a French inch, i.e. 0.376mm.


One “pica” equals 12 points.


One “cicero” equals 12 Didôt points.

Rigid font-dependent length units


The font size. When using a 12pt font, 1fs corresponds to 12pt.


The base font size. Typically, when selecting 10 as the font size for your document and when typing large text, the base font size is 10pt and the font size 12pt.


The width of a nicely looking fraction bar for the current font.


A typical separation between text and graphics for the current font, so as to keep the text readable. For instance, the numerator in a fraction is shifted up by 1sep.


The height of the fraction bar for the current font (approximately 0.5ex).


The height of the “x” character in the current font.


The width of the “M” character in the current font.

Stretchable font-dependent length units


This is a stretchable variant of 1quad. The default length of 1fn is 1quad. When stretched, 1fn may be reduced to 0.5fn and extended to 1.5fn.


This length defaults to zero, but it may be stretched up till 1fn.


The “base line skip” is the sum of 1quad and par-sep. It corresponds to the distance between successive lines of normal text.

Typically, the baselines of successive lines are separated by a distance of 1fn (in TeXmacs and LaTeX a slightly larger space is used though so as to allow for subscripts and superscripts and avoid a too densely looking text. When stretched, 1fn may be reduced to 0.5fn and extended to 1.5fn.


The (stretchable) width of space character in the current font.


The additional (stretchable) width of a space character after a period.

Box lengths

Box length units can only be used within some special markup elements, such as move, shift, resize, clipped and image. The principal body of this content (e.g. the content being “moved” in the case of move) is typeset as a box. The following lengths units then correspond to the size and the extents of the box.


The width of the box.


The height of the box.


The logical left -coordinate of the box.


The logical right -coordinate of the box.


The logical bottom -coordinate of the box.


The logical top -coordinate of the box.

For instance, the code

<move|Hello there||<plus|-0.5b|-0.5t>>

can be used to center Hello there at the base-line.

Other length units


The width of the paragraph. That is the length the text can span. It is affected by paper size, margins, number of columns, column separation, cell width (if in a table), etc.


The height of the main text in a page. In a similar way as par, this length unit is affected by page size, margins, etc.


One screen pixel, the meaning of this unit is affected by the shrinking factor.


The smallest length unit for internal length calculations by TeXmacs. 1px divided by the shrinking factor corresponds to 256tmpt.

Different ways to specify lengths

There are three types of lengths in TeXmacs:

Simple lengths

A string consisting of a number followed by a length unit.

Abstract lengths

An abstract length is a macro which evaluates to a length. Such lengths have the advantage that they may depend on the context.

Normalized lengths

All lengths are ultimately converted into a normalized length, which is a tag of the form <tmlen|l> (for rigid lengths) or <tmlen|min|def|max> (for stretchable lengths). The user may also use this tag in order to specify stretchable lengths. For instance, <tmlen|<minus|1quad|1pt>|1quad|1.5quad> evaluates to a length which is 1quad by default, at least 1quad-1pt and at most 1.5quad.