Readability Vs. Aesthetics: Typesetting Inline Math In Latex

The Dilemma of Inline Math Typesetting

When typesetting mathematical expressions in lines of text using LaTeX, authors face a dilemma between optimizing for readability versus aesthetics. Readability relates to how easy it is to visually parse an inline math expression, while aesthetics refers to how nice it looks in terms of spacing, font usage, and integration with the surrounding text. There is an inherent trade-off between these two goals that LaTeX users must grapple with.

On the readability side, the main priority is to make identifiers, operators, and delimiters easily distinguished from one another. This is accomplished by using spacing and fonts to differentiate between math elements. However, excessive spacing can distort the clean, professional look that gives LaTeX its renowned typographical quality. Similarly, font changes within math modes can improve readability but interfere with aesthetic uniformity.

LaTeX offers powerful typesetting capabilities for inline math, but configuring the spacing and fonts requires many low-level commands. Finding the right balance between readability and aesthetics often involves tedious trial-and-error adjustment of spacing parameters and manual overrides of font family and size selections. Achieving an optimal result requires care, taste, and experience with how subtle tweaks can shift the balance between these two typesetting objectives.

Settling on a Default: \$ $ vs. \( \)

LaTeX provides two inline math delimiters: the single dollar signs ($) and backslash-parentheses (\()). When first getting started with LaTeX math, users have to decide on a default inline math mode to use for the majority of expressions. This decision between the $ and \( \) delimeters represents the first opportunity to tilt the scale towards either aesthetics or readability.

The double dollar sign delimiters have a more compact, integrated look that preserves the visual flow of the surrounding text. Math expressions delimited with $ signs inherit the font family and size of the nearby text. The result is seamless integration between textual and symbolic content, yielding a polished, professional aesthetic. However, this comes at the cost of reduced readability since the math symbols assume the same size and weight as regular alphabetic characters.

By contrast, the backslash-parentheses provide stronger visual demarcation of math expressions. Formulas delimited with \( and \) are set in a standard math font at a slightly smaller size than the body text. This improves readability of inline math but disrupts the uniformity of font usage within a paragraph. Backslash-parenthesis math expressions stand out more rather than blending into the textual flow.

For authors seeking an aesthetic style, the $ delimiters offer a cleaner, more integrated look optimizing for typographic beauty. However, authors prioritizing the readability of complex math expressions tend to prefer defining \( \) as the default inline math mode, accepting some sacrifice in seamless aesthetics. This starting delimiter choice impacts many downstream decisions about spacing and fonts as authors continue balancing readability and attractiveness through the rest of the math typesetting process.

Adjusting Spacing Around Symbols

Once a default math mode is selected, authors can use spacing adjustments to further calibrate the balance between readability and aesthetics. LaTeX offers granular control over the spaces surrounding inline math, including options like:

\thinspace - Thinner space between math and text
\, - Thin space between math elements
\: - Medium space between math elements
\; - Thick space between math elements
\quad - Horizontal padding around entire expression

Applying these spacing commands around operators, relations, delimiters, and identifiers customizes the visual separation between elements within a math expression. Adding more space this way enhances readability by better differentiating between variables, numbers, logical operators, parentheses, and other symbols. However, extensive use of spacing tweaks can produce awkward gaps that degrade typographic flow and beauty.

For example, spacing out an identity like $x \: = \: y$ makes the equal sign stand out clearly between the two identifiers. But inserting thicker spaces clashes with the even rhythm of high-quality text typesetting. Achieving excellence requires using these spacing parameters judiciously based on the complexity of the math expressions. Cleaner, simpler formulas may need no added spacing to be readable, while more elaborate expressions benefit from subtle spacing adjustments to delineate components without introducing uneven gaps.

Using Custom Commands for Frequently Used Expressions

Another LaTeX technique that balances readability and aesthetics is defining custom commands for complex inline expressions that get reused. For example:


This \vect command formats any symbol or group following its control sequence (\vect) as a boldface vector with an arrow overhead. Instead of typing out long chunks of math code each time, the \vect macro provides a concise wrapper that reduces visual clutter but still highlights the most salient variable or formula.

Here are further examples of useful custom math commands that promote readability without requiring authors to sacrifice style and polish each occurrence:

\Greeksym#1 -> Formats a Greek letter name passed in (#1) as the associated Greek symbol
\units#1 -> Surrounds a quantity name (#1 = mass, time, etc.) with brackets indicating quantity units
\commute{A}{B} -> Inlines the group commute identity, e.g. AB = BA

In addition, semantic macros like these facilitate authoring math expressions by hiding the LaTeX commands in human-readable symbols. Readability improves because visual overload declines even though the unique commands preserve strict control over typographic aesthetics.

Automating Style Choices with Math Mode Packages

One of the most powerful LaTeX tools for balancing math readability and aesthetics is leveraging design packages that automate the underlying formatting commands. For example, the LaTeX package "physics" applies a sophisticated collection of spacing, font, and macro definitions optimized for typesetting common physics formulas and scenarios.

Rather than adjusting the look and feel expression-by-expression, authors can invoke pre-built math mode design frameworks that embed the ideal visual encoding for various mathematical sub-disciplines like physics, engineering, statistics, technical publishing, etc. These packages encapsulate years of typographical refinement by LaTeX experts based around common math constructs and terminology for a given field.

Activating these math mode packages trades some degree of direct control over readability versus aesthetics for automation based on accumulated best practices. However, most math packages expose control parameters for custom tweaks that deviate from the defaults when author goals diverge from audience conventions. For instance, the physics bundles spaces certain relations closer together to maximize compactness and uniformity of math integration in text. An author more concerned with parsing ease over elegant cohesion could override selected spacing around equals signs just within inline mode math while retaining automated handling for embellished display equations.

In this way, design-forward math typesetting packages offer authors a headstart on solid, proven balance between readability and aesthetics. Custom override capabilities supplement artful automated base templates with author-specific flexibility.together provide powerful tools for rapidly honing the readability/style balance.

Example Expressions and Output

To illustrate practical applications of the inline math typesetting techniques covered so far, here are some example formulas highlighting the spectrum of possibilities between optimizing readability and aesthetics.

Expression focused on seamless aesthetics:
The continuity equation $d_{t}{\rho}+\nabla\cdot(\rho \mathbf {v} )=0$ appears frequently in physics contexts.

Expression focused more on readability:
The continuity equation \( d_{t}{\rho} + \nabla \cdot ( \rho \vect{v} ) = 0 \) stands out more clearly from the surrounding text.

Mixed levels of spacing and delimiters: Gas density \(\rho\) satisfies \( d_{t}{\rho} + \nabla\cdot(\rho \vect{v})\ = 0\) by conservation of mass.

Custom commands: The equation \commute{A}{B} reminds vector students that order does not affect dot products.

Automated package output: Activating the physycs style renders all equations like \(\nabla \cross \vect{B} = \frac{1}{c^2} \frac{\partial\vect{E}}{\partial t}\) using settings optimized for mathematical readability without sacrificing typographic quality.

As these examples illustrate, LaTeX provides enormous flexibility to format inline math expressions along the readability-aesthetics spectrum. No single approach can fully optimize both simultaneously, but the various techniques discussed offer authors powerful control over finding their preferred balance. With practice and experience, LaTeX users can consistently strike the right compromise between decoding ease and artistic elegance.

Achieving Balance Through Compromise

Inline math expressions intrinsically create tension between enabling easy breakdown of their logical structure and preserving attractive seamlessness with surrounding text. LaTeX manages this tension by making available various low-level spacing, font, delimiter, and automation options without enforcing strict rules. Navigating these choices involves many subtle trade-offs between math interpretation ease and typographic harmony.

But freedom requires wisdom in pursuit of readability and aesthetics. As with any complex typsetting system, LaTeX rewards experience with and taste for high-quality math rendering. There are no absolute right or wrong settings, only compromises favoring different mixtures of decoding help versus undisrupted flow. By experimenting with all parameters and developing an intuition for positive impacts versus diminishing returns, LaTeX authors can skillfully balance these competing demands.

The central challenge remains finding the sweet spot maximizing both goals simultaneously. Concessions made purely for parsing convenience can disrupt aesthetic polish just as adherence to unified style can obscure underlying meaning. But using all techniques available, from delimiter selection to custom macros to tailored packages, LaTeX empowers authors to satisfy both objectives. With practice in toggling settings, previewing outputs, and accumulating productions over time, math writers can consistently strike that delicate balance between comprehendability and beauty.

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