Booktabs, Tabularx, And Beyond: A Review Of Table Packages For Latex

Improving Table readability with LaTeX Packages

Fundamentals of quality tables

When constructing tables for academic papers or technical documents, readability should be a top concern. Unreadable tables fail to achieve their purpose of clearly and efficiently communicating information. The anatomy of a readable table begins with simple structure, meaningful content, and attention to typography.

Structurally, effective tables use consistent formatting and layouts that match the complexity of the data. Content-wise, tables should communicate factual information without superfluous elements. Typographically, tables require strategic use of rules, alignment, spacing, and fonts to guide the reader's eyes to important data relationships.

Anatomy of a readable table

The skeletal foundation of readable tables starts with simple rows and columns. Headers belong above column groups, with stubs orienting rows. Captions clearly identify and summarize tables independent of the main text.

Within this foundation, hierarchies provide further structural orientation. Column headings indicate types of data, while special formatting distinguishes sub-headings from data cells through alignment, spacing, ruling lines or variation. Row hierarchies likewise guide through indentation, ruling lines between levels or other signals like bold text.

Typographic best practices

Readable tables use typography to direct attention and reveal logical data relationships. The number one guideline is consistency of fonts, justification, ruling lines and cell spacing both within tables and across documents.

Second, tables rely on variation rather than proliferation of stylistic elements. Special formatting like bold text or ruling lines gain significance when used sparingly to emphasize table regions. Too many fonts or lines create clutter instead of clarity.

Finally, white space and alignment guide the eye along clear paths, avoiding zig-zagging or scattering. Aligning data by decimal points eases comparison of numeric data. Logical alignments, such as left-justified text and centered headings, further reinforce structure.

The booktabs package

The booktabs package provides simple commands for typographically-sound tables focused on readability. By limiting formatting options, booktabs enforces best practices for minimal, effective ruled tables with thoughtfully-chosen hierarchies.

Importing and using booktabs

After installing the booktabs package, import it with \usepackage{booktabs} in the preamble. This provides four important commands:

  • \toprule - thick, bold rule to split heading from data rows
  • \midrule - regular rule to delineate subgroups within heading or data
  • \bottomrule - thick, bold rule separating final data row from footnotes or textual material
  • \addlinespace - adds space between rows to clarify hierarchies

Basic commands: \toprule, \midrule, \bottomrule

The booktabs ruling commands mark important structural boundaries. \toprule and \bottomrule bookend heading and data cell rows with thick, bold lines. \midrule splits subheadings from data rows or highlights internal divisions of wide tables.

Correct use of booktabs lines enhances readability through clean delineation. Misuse overpowers the typographic hierarchy through unnecessary lines that guide the eye nowhere.

Improving default table aesthetics

Booktabs tables set themselves apart through elegant, unfussy design. They eschew vertical rules, relying instead on alignment, space and minimal lines to articulate structure. This enforces readable typographic hierarchies otherwise obscured by chaotic default formatting.

The tabularx package

While the booktabs package focuses specifically on ruling and styling, the tabularx package provides tools to build table structures that fit page widths in LaTeX. Automated sizing of columns expands layout options beyond the basic tabular environment.

Fitting tables to text width

The tabularx environment takes a specified table width as input, automatically adjusting column widths to fill the horizontal space. This allows tables to neatly fill text blocks without manual calculations of column width ratios.

To invoke tabularx, replace tabular with tabularx in the table preamble and define the desired total width such as \linewidth. An X column then absorbs excess width, while other columns behave normally.

Column types: X, L, C, R

In addition to standard column types, tabularx lets you designate sizing behaviors. X columns expand automatically, L and R behave as usual, and C centers but does not resize. You must designate one and only one X column to enable automated spreading.

Multi-page tables with longtable

LaTeX handles tables that spill over onto subsequent pages poorly by default. The complementary longtable package lets tabularx tables break as needed, carrying over headers and footer properly.

Additional handy packages

A vast array of packages beyond booktabs and tabularx provide specialized table functionality. Packages like siunitx govern numeric data, while multirow and multicolumn merge cells. Other tools import color, graphics and customize table borders.

Column formatting with siunitx

The siunitx package brings robust tools for formatting numeric data into table cells. Column declarations like S align numbers on decimal points while providing intelligent spacing. Other commands format significant figures, uncertainty, units and more.

Merging cells with multirow and multicolumn

Basic LaTeX tables rigidly align cells to column and row boundaries. But the multirow and multicolumn packages allow cells to span multiple rows or columns for more complex layouts.

Colors, graphics, and borders

Packages like colortbl and graphicx add color and imported graphics to table cells. Line drawing commands in arrayscustomize rules and borders down to individual segments and thickness.

Example code for professional tables

Real-world examples clarify structured application of table packages. The following guidelines walk through best practices for deploying tabularx together with booktabs and other tools for polished, publication-quality tables.

Minimal working example

Consider a simple case importing booktabs and tabularx to build an automated two-column table filled to \textwidth. We use the standard column types but leverage automatic sizing:


\begin{tabularx}{\linewidth}{ L X }
Column 1 Header & Column 2 Header \\
Body text& Body text \\

Configuring column types

Column typing choices balance automated spreading against data alignment. Here we left-justify the first column but numerically center the second column based on the siunitx package:


\begin{tabularx}{\textwidth}{ L S }
{Column 1} & \Centering{Column 2}\\
Body 1 & 12.34 \\
Body 2 & 56.78 \\

Exporting styled tables to Microsoft Word

Unfortunately, moving latex tables into other document preparation systems often loses careful formatting. Exporting tabularx tables to Word retaining booktabs style requires special LaTeX compiler flags:

\begin{tabularx}{\linewidth}{ L X }

Column 1...


LaTeX table functionality moves far beyond basic values separated by ampersands. The booktabs package introduces typographic best practices through its easy-to-learn structuring commands. For fitting table width to text, tabularx provides automated column sizing missing from primitive LaTeX tabulars.

Together, booktabs and tabularx provide simple but powerful tools for professional typesetting of readable tables. Mixing in specialized packages like siunitx for numeric data, graphics and color further extends capabilities. With practice, LaTeX tables can meet and even exceed quality expectations for academic and technical publishing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *