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[LaTeX] Lengths

category: Writing | course: LaTeX | difficulty:

While last chapter discussed the various ways you can add or remove extra space at any moment, this chapter will talk about basic lengths that are applied throughout the whole document.


Before we can go on, there’s something you need to understand about dimensions in LaTeX. These dimensions are width, height and depth. The width is, as you’d expect, how wide something is. The height, however, is the length of the part that is above the baseline. The depth is the length of the part below the baseline.


Getting Lengths

Often, you want everything to line up correctly, and similar things to be of similar size. This can be done by accessing LaTeX’s default lengths. These are:




The normal vertical distance between two lines in a paragraph


Multiplies \baselineskip


The distance between columns


The width of a column


The margin for ‘even’ pages


The margin for ‘odd’ pages


The width of a line (in the local environment)


The width of the page


The height of the page


The regular paragraph indentation


The extra vertical space between two paragraphs


The default separation between columns in a tabular environment


The height of the text


The width of the text


The size of the top margin


Units of length in the picture environment


Extra left margin for a single complete paragraph (0pt by default)


Extra right margin for a single complete paragraph (0pt by default)

A regular paragraph here, with regular built-in lengths set and not changed. \par
\setlength{\leftskip}{20pt} \setlength{\rightskip}{20pt}
A not-so-regular paragraph here, with space  being skipped on the left and right side, leading to a smaller width.

The \baselinestretch command is mostly semantical. By default, the multiplication factor is just 1.0, but if you want to change this vertical line spacing, you need to renew this command.

You can multiply numbers by these lengths, simply by using it in place of a unit.

A regular paragraph here, with regular built-in lengths set and not changed. \par
A not-so-regular paragraph here, with lots of skipped vertical space between itself and the previous paragraph.

If you want to only print the value, use \the in front of it (just as with counters, remember?).

The width of the text in this document is: \the\textwidth

One very important use case of this length system, is with the \hspace and \vspace commands. Instead of putting in a standard length as argument, they can also use so-called skip arguments:

default value plus stretch value minus shrink value

It always tries to use the default value. But, if a box is overfull, it will shrink the whitespace (but never more than the value you provided). If a box is underfull, it will stretch the whitespace (but never more than the value you provided). This doesn't work for other commands - they ignore the plus and minus, and see them as text to put in the document.

Setting Lengths

You can override these lengths and set your own if you want. To set a completely new length, use


If you want to add or subtract something from the current value, use


Another way of setting a length, is by using those dimensions I just introduced. These commands set the length to the width, height or depth of the text block you input.

\settowidth{command}{text} \settoheight{command}{text} \settodepth{command}{text}

\settoheight{\parskip}{\Huge M}
First paragraph \par
Second Paragraph

Creating Lengths

It’s possible to define your own lengths. This way, you can save values inside a command, and easily use them throughout the document. The greatest advantage is that you can change this value any time you like, and everything will automatically be updated accordingly. The syntax is


This will set command to a length of 0in, which you means you still need a \setlength right after it, to set it to the value you want.


Our own length is: \the\myLength \par

Our own length is: \the\myLength

Rubber Lengths

All these lengths so far have been exact. But, sometimes, you don’t know upfront what length you’re looking for, and that’s when so-called rubber lengths come into play.

A rubber length is created with the \stretch{factor} command. If there’s no other rubber length in the line, it will just fill up all leftover white space. But, if there are, it will scale in accordance with its factor.

Some text \hspace{\stretch{3}} More text \hspace{\stretch{1}} End of line!

Alternatively, the \fill command is the same as \stretch{1}.

Looking Back on Lists

This section on spacing and lengths started with the question if there was an easy way to change the amount of space between list items. Now we can answer it. Simply change the \itemsep length.

    \item Uno
    \item Duo
    \item Tres
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