The fundamental principle upon which we based our language design is that the language should be easy to use by people (for example, secretaries) who know neither mathematics nor typesetting.
This principle implies several things. First, ``normal'' mathematical conventions about operator precedence, parentheses, and the like cannot be used, for to give special meaning to such characters means that the user has to understand what he or she is typing. Thus the language should not assume, for instance, that parentheses are always balanced, for they are not in the half-open interval . Nor should it assume that that can be replaced by , or that is better written as (or vice versa).
Second, there should be relatively few rules, keywords, special symbols and operators, and the like. This keeps the language easy to learn and remember. Furthermore, there should be few exceptions to the rules that do exist: if something works in one situation, it should work everywhere. If a variable can have a subscript, then a subscript can have a subscript, and so on without limit.
Third, ``standard'' things should happen automatically. Someone who types ``x=y+z+1'' should get ``''. Subscripts and superscripts should automatically be printed in an appropriately smaller size, with no special intervention. Fraction bars have to be made the right length and positioned at the right height. And so on. Indeed a mechanism for overriding default actions has to exist, but its application is the exception, not the rule.
We assume that the typist has a reasonable picture (a two-dimensional representation) of the desired final form, as might be handwritten by the author of a paper. We also assume that the input is typed on a computer terminal much like an ordinary typewriter. This implies an input alphabet of perhaps 100 characters, none of them special.
A secondary, but still important, goal in our design was that the system should be easy to implement, since neither of the authors had any desire to make a long-term project of it. Since our design was not firm, it was also necessary that the program be easy to change at any time.
To make the program easy to build and to change, and to guarantee regularity (``it should work everywhere''), the language is defined by a context-free grammar, described in Section 5. The compiler for the language was built using a compiler-compiler.
A priori, the grammar/compiler-compiler approach seemed the right thing to do. Our subsequent experience leads us to believe that any other course would have been folly. The original language was designed in a few days. Construction of a working system sufficient to try significant examples required perhaps a person-month. Since then, we have spent a modest amount of additional time over several years tuning, adding facilities, and occasionally changing the language as users make criticisms and suggestions.
We also decided quite early that we would let TROFF do our work for us whenever possible. TROFF is quite a powerful program, with a macro facility, text and arithmetic variables, numerical computation and testing, and conditional branching. Thus we have been able to avoid writing a lot of mundane but tricky software. For example, we store no text strings, but simply pass them on to TROFF. Thus we avoid having to write a storage management package. Furthermore, we have been able to isolate ourselves from most details of the particular device and character set currently in use. For example, we let TROFF compute the widths of all strings of characters; we need know nothing about them.
A third design goal is special to our environment. Since our program is only useful for typesetting mathematics, it is necessary that it interface cleanly with the underlying typesetting language for the benefit of users who want to set intermingled mathematics and text (the usual case). The standard mode of operation is that when a document is typed, mathematical expressions are input as part of the text, but marked by user settable delimiters. The program reads this input and treats as comments those things which are not mathematics, simply passing them through untouched. At the same time it converts the mathematical input into the necessary TROFF commands. The resulting ioutput is passed directly to TROFF where the comments and the mathematical parts both become text and/or TROFF commands.