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LaTeX and fonts


The main focus of this document is on the use of fonts in LaTeX, though some wider issues are addressed too. Typesetting's an old, arcane, aesthetics-ridden subject of which fonts are a small but surprisingly complex part. Even apparently simple operations are non-trivial - for example, when a character is enlarged, the lines are proportionally thinner than when the character is reduced. Rules for controlling these changes (and anti-aliasing, kerning etc) are contained in hints that form part of the font definition.

In consequence, LaTeX's use of fonts isn't trivial for users or system managers, but usually isn't too hard either. These notes go way beyond what a standard LaTeX user needs, but might be useful when something doesn't work as expected.

Font formats

There are many thousands of fonts. Fonts that share the same name needn't be the same - the appearance of a "Garamond" font, for example, might well depend on the supplier.

There are also several font formats. Systems (especially in the past) required separate screen fonts and printer fonts. Screen fonts are low-resolution, bitmapped images which don't scale well (so different point-sizes call for different images) and can take a lot of disc-space. Printer fonts are for the final hardcopy so they need to be high-resolution. They're often produced from a set of specifications which can produce different sizes and styles of characters according to requirements. Postscript (a page description language rich in curve-drawing and filling commands) can be used to define fonts. Postscript type 1 fonts were used in the 1980s and continue to be used. ATM (Adobe Type Manager) is a subset of the postscript interpreter that runs on the computer, not in the printer. It needs a single bitmap font plus a printer font. ATM scales Type 1 PostScript fonts for screen display and imaging for both PostScript and non-PostScript printers.

In the early 1990s TrueType emerged so scalable fonts could generate bitmaps on-demand as though each size had been designed by hand. On Windows such file have a .ttf suffix. Other formats exist too -

  • Postscript Type 3 fonts - fonts that use extra postscript commands
  • metafont - a format for describing and generating characters used in the [La]TeX world.
  • OpenType is directly based on Unicode - an international standard for representing a broader character set using two-byte encoding for each letter. This allows the encoding of 64,000 characters instead of 256. OpenType puts either a PostScript or TrueType outline in a TrueType-style wrapper. Applications and most operating system functions outside of the font subsystem will no longer care which type of font is in this "wrapper".
  • Apple Type Solution (ATS) is on new Macs. It provides support for various font formats including TrueType, PostScript Type 1, and OpenType.

TrueType is built into most Windows/MacOS systems. PostScript Type 1 fonts are well-established and supported directly by most high-end output devices. TrueType (which compared to postscript uses relatively smarter fonts and a dumber interpreter) allows better hinting than type 1 does. Unlike TrueType fonts, PostScript fonts require two separate files: one contains the character outlines, and the other contains metrics data. For Windows systems using PostScript, a "PFB" file contains the outlines, while a "PFM" file carries the metrics. The system-independent "AFM" metrics file can be converted to a Windows PFM file. In LaTeX the metric information is in "TFM" files.

More recently, many PostScript Level 2 printers (and all PostScript 3 printers) have TrueType rasterisation built in. However, with some Windows printer drivers the user must change the printer driver settings in software to take advantage of this feature (downloading TrueType as Type 42).

How LaTeX uses fonts

LaTeX initially used metafont fonts. The TFM files (containing the metrics) and the PK files (containing the shapes) had to be installed beforehand. Nowadays the TFM and PK files can be created on-demand, and postscript fonts can be used.

[from .ltx to .ps]

LaTeX's use of metafont fonts

When latex processes a source file to produce a DVI file it needs to know not only the size of each character but also

  • how the character might be affected by neighbouring ones ('f' followed by 'i' may form a ligature, for example)
  • how elastic the space around the character is (LaTeX may want to squeeze a word to fit on a line)

This kind of information is contained in a TeX Font Metrics file (a TFM file) which is required whatever format the fonts are in. The DVI files contains the coordinates of the characters but not the font shapes. When the DVI file is printed out or converted to postscript the shape of each character can be imparted in 2 ways

  • as a bitmap - PK files hold bitmaps at set resolutions. If the appropriate pk file isn't installed, it's generated from the metafont definition on-the-fly
  • as a postscript character
  • - leaving the postscript printer or viewer to render the fonts (though the postscript file can have embedded fonts).

Using Postscript fonts in LaTeX

Though originally [La]TeX used metafont-generated fonts (e.g. Computer Modern Roman) it can also use postscript fonts. There are some standard postscript font sets

  • PostScript printers (and Adobe Type Manager) with 13 fonts have - Courier, Courier-Bold, Courier-BoldOblique, Courier-Oblique, Helvetica, Helvetica-Bold, Helvetica-BoldOblique, Helvetica-Oblique, Symbol, Times-Bold, Times-BoldItalic, Times-Italic, Times-Roman
  • Postscript printers with 17 fonts have - All of the above, plus the following: Helvetica-Narrow, Helvetica-Narrow-Bold, Helvetica-Narrow-BoldOblique, Helvetica-Narrow-Oblique
  • Postscript printers with 35 fonts have - All of the above, plus the following: ZapfChancery-MediumItalic, ZapfDingbats, AvantGarde-Book, AvantGarde-BookOblique, AvantGarde-Demi, AvantGarde-DemiOblique, Bookman-Demi, Bookman-DemiItalic, Bookman-Light, Bookman-LightItalic, NewCenturySchlbk-Bold, NewCenturySchlbk-BoldItalic, NewCenturySchlbk-Italic, NewCenturySchlbk-Roman, Palatino-Bold, Palatino-BoldItalic, Palatino-Italic, Palatino-Roman

Most LaTeX installations support at least the core set of 13 using the packages below. To use (for example) Helvetica, one just adds \usepackage{helvet}. Note that LaTeX has the concept of a default Roman font and a default Sans Serif font. Using \usepackage{helvet} will change the default Sans Serif font but your document will still use the default Roman font.

Package Description
avant AvantGarde font as default sans
avantgarITC Avant Garde
bookman Bookman font as default roman. Avant Garde as default sans
chancery Zapf Chancery font as default roman
charter default roman
courier default ttdefault
helvet Helvetica font as default sans
helvetic Helvetica-Oblique font as default sans
mathpazo Palatino font as default roman. Math in Palatino where possible
mathptmx Times font as default roman. Math in Times where possible.
ncntrsbk NewCenturySchlbk-Roman
newcent NewCenturySchoolbook font as default roman
palatcm Palatino + Computer Modern math fonts
pifont Pi font support (special characters)
utopia Utopia font as default roman
zapfchan ITC Zapf Chancery as default roman

These packages are installed on our system in /usr/share/texmf/tex/latex/psnfss/. There are postscript versions of TeX's original Computer Modern metafont files.

LaTeX font attributes

Every text font in LATEX has five attributes:

  • encoding - This specifies the order that characters appear in the font (e.g. whether the 65th character is 'A'). The most common value for TeX font encoding is OT1. The other predefined option is T1 (extended TeX). There's also US ASCII (7 bit), ISO Latin-1 (8 bit), Adobe Standard Encoding, etc.
  • family - The name for a collection of fonts, usually grouped under a common name by the font foundry. For example, `Adobe Times' ptm and Knuth's `Computer Modern Roman' cmr are font families.
  • series - How heavy or expanded a font is. For example, `medium weight', `narrow' and `bold extended' are all series.
  • shape - The form of the letters within a font family. For example, `italic', `oblique' and `upright' are all font shapes.
  • size - The design size of the font, for example `10pt'.

A sample LaTeX specification is T1 ptm bit 18pt (Adobe Times Bold Italic 18pt) and (using TeX font naming) ptmbq at 18pt in TeX. There are LaTeX commands to change each of the attributes. Fonts for math mode are dealt with rather differently. They have the same 5 attributes but no commands to change the attributes individually. There's a lack of postscript fonts with mathematical characters.

Associated LaTeX filetypes

All the LaTeX files should be under one directory called $TEXMF in the documentation. On our system $TEXMF is /usr/share/texmf.

  • .tfm - tex font metric. [La]TeX needs the font metrics to properly layout the page. They're in $TEXMF/fonts/tfm/supplier/fontname/
  • .afm - Adobe Font Metrics (files used by Type1 fonts). They're in $TEXMF/fonts/afm/supplier/fontname/
  • .pfb - $TEXMF/fonts/type1/supplier/fontname/ - the type1 font directory
  • .ttf - $TEXMF/fonts/truetype/supplier/fontname/ - TrueType fonts
  • .pl - property list. This is a human readable version of a tex font metric file.
  • .vpl - virtual property list. Human readable version of a virtual font file.
  • .fd - font definition. Used to define a family of fonts. Contains information on how LaTeX font attributes are turned in TeX fonts. They're in $TEXMF/tex/latex/psnfss
  • .vf - virtual font. These files contain encoding details, and act as interpreters. TeX treats them as fonts. It's a way of constructing a font from the characters of various other fonts (you may for example want a virtual font that uses all the characters of another font except that the dollar sign is replace by the euro symbol). They're in $TEXMF/fonts/vf/supplier/fontname/
  • .pk - a device dependent bitmap font. These are usually constructed on an as-needed basis (renderings of Type1 and metafont fonts). On modern systems these generated .pk (and .tfm) files are stored so that anyone else can subsequently use them. On our system they're in /public/texfonts.
  • .mf - metafont files. These are installed on our system in $TEXMF/fonts/source. A list of metafont fonts is online.
  • .map - files mapping between the (manufacturer name, font name) and the TFM file. Note that one company's font called X may not have the same specification as another company's font of the same name.
  • $TEXMF/dvips/config/ - fontmap file for dvips. This file is similar in both function and format to ghostscript's Fontmap file. It maps TeX font codenames to postscript font specifications.

Associated LaTeX utilities

LaTeX packages to support new fonts usually contain detailed installation details. If you need to go it alone (or something goes wrong) you may have need of the following

  • afm2tfm - This will create a TFM files of raw fonts and vpl files of virtual fonts from an AFM file.
  • ttf2tfm - TrueType to TFM
  • ttf2afm - TrueType to AFM
  • ttf2pt1 - TrueType to AFM and PFB
  • vptovf - From a VPL file this creates vf and tfm files for virtual fonts.
  • mf - processes a metafont file to produce TFM and PK files
  • fontinst is a utility for font installation, originally written by Alan Jeffrey. Its primary purpose is to simplify the installation of PostScript or TrueType fonts for use with (La)TeX
  • Use "xdvi -l filename" to list the fonts used by the file

TeX font names

In the configuration files the fonts are codenamed. The naming scheme is FNW{V}E{n} where:

  • F is a one-letter abbreviation for the foundry (m = monotype, p = adobe, b = bitstream, f = free)
  • N is a two letter abbreviation for the font name (for example, ag = "avant garde")
  • W is the font weight (r = regular, b = bold, l = light d = demibold)
  • V is an optional slope variant (i = italic , o = oblique)
  • E is an abbreviation for the encoding (almost always 8a which is adobe standard encoding).
  • N is an optional width variant (n = narrow)
For example, the font Adobe Garamond demibold is pgad8a. See the font naming conventions

Things that can go wrong

  • The characters are all there, but spacing is strange - It may be that latex isn't using the TFM file appropriate for the font you're using.
  • The wrong font is used in places (e.g. in verbatim) - LaTeX will warn you if it performs font substitution but the warnings can easily be lost amongst other output. For example, output might contain
       LaTeX Font Warning: Font shape `LY1/pcr/m/n' undefined
       (Font)              using `LY1/ptm/m/n' instead on input line 53.
    pcr is TeXspeak for Adobe courier. ptm is Adobe times. So the warning means that times is substituted when courier is requested using LY1 encoding and medium weight, normal (i.e. upright) text. When debugging such problems, it's worth determining why the desired font is needed (in the case above "\usepackage[LY1]{fontenc}" was in the source code, and the verbatim environment was used). Then it helps to scan the verbose output file carefully. The case above also generated the following in the output log
      LaTeX Font Info:    No file LY1pcr.fd. on input line 53.
    This file (or ly1ptm.fd), is missing from some distributions. It contains lines like
      \DeclareFontShape{LY1}{ptm}{m}{it}{<-> ptmri8y}{} 
    which map from the LaTeX description of a font to the TeX terminology. Installing the missing file should solve the problem.
  • The main text is ok, but the maths isn't - the free postscript fonts lack many maths characters. The mathptm package puts the maths into the postscript Times font and symbol font where possible, otherwise it uses the metafont-generated characters. There are commercial alternatives, and free alternatives are under development.
  • My postscript file looks bad onscreen - perhaps ghostscript's configuration file is wrong. ghostscript will try to use a default font if it doesn't know what to use.
  • My postscript file looks ok on screen but fails to print - ghostscript has support for many more fonts than postscript printers have. Whereas ghostscript might substitute for a missing font, a printer is likely to abort the job.
  • My postscript file is ok, but when I convert to PDF the fonts are slow and ugly - Use postscript fonts in the LaTeX file. See the TeX FAQ for details.

On many systems you can get more information on the PATHs etc used by components of the LaTeX system. E.g.

  • xdvi -debug 4000 ...
  • dvips -d 6 ...

Output, though very wordy, is also thorough.

See Also

The following sites have been useful - thanks go their authors for their help


  • anti-aliasing - a way to disguise the jagged lines that appear on low-resolution screens (using grey instead of black, etc).
  • glyph - the final letter shapes that appear in the hardcopy
  • hinting - The provision of additional information encoded in the font to help prevent problems caused by scaling, etc.
  • italics - a sloping style of a font - not to be confusing with sloping or oblique text which is a simple mathematical transformation of characters
  • kerning - adjustment of space between certain characters - sometimes so their bounding boxes overlap. For example, the 'o' of 'To' often goes under the crossbar of the 'T'.
  • leading - (rhyming with 'wedding') space between lines of type
  • ligatures - special characters joining certain characters (fi, ffl etc)
  • monospace - a font where each character is the same width. The alternative is proportional spacing
  • orphan - a paragraph's final word or line at the top of a column or page
  • Postscript - a page description language, text drawing and graphics drawing being treated uniformly. Most printers support Postscript level 2 nowadays. Level 3 postscript hasn't been out long.
    • Type 1 font - a PostScript font specification which included hinting
    • Type 3 font - a font drawn using postscript commands, requiring a full PostScript interpreter. Most developers have stopped using this format except in a few special cases, where special type 3 characteristics (pattern fills inside outlines, for example) have been used. When non-postscript fonts are used in LaTeX and the resulting file converted to postscript, type 3 fonts are used, which look especially bad if the postscript file is subsequently converted to PDF.
  • rasterisation - An outline font must be represented by the dots of the output device (screen pixels, dots of ink, etc). The process of converting the outline to a pattern of dots on the grid of the device is called "rasterisation". When there aren't enough dots making up the glyph (such as at small sizes or low resolutions), there can be inconsistencies in the representation of certain letter features due to different rounding based on how the outline happens to sit on the grid (e.g. when the widths of the letter stems vary when they shouldn't). Worse, key features of the glyphs can disappear at small sizes. Both PostScript Type 1 and TrueType fonts have a means of dealing with these inconsistencies, called "hinting".
  • river - a vertical lining-up of word spaces on a page
  • serif - a short stroke at the end of a character's main stroke. A sans serif font (helvetica for example) lacks these strokes
  • typeface - a set of characters with the same basic shape for each letter
  • Type 42 font - a TrueType font encapsulated in a PostScript wrapper so that it can be used like other PostScript fonts. Only recent versions of PostScript (starting with Adobe Postscript 2013) know how to deal with such fonts. Conversion of TrueType into Type 42 can be done by ttfps
  • widow - a paragraph's final word alone on a line

PostScript and Adobe are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems Inc.