The most common roff system today is the free software implementation GNU roff, groff(1). groff implements the look-and-feel and functionality of its ancestors, with many extensions.
The ancestry of roff is described in section HISTORY. In this document, the term roff always refers to the general class of roff programs, not to the roff command provided in early UNIX systems.
In spite of its age, roff is in wide use today, for example, the manual pages on UNIX systems (man~pages), many software books, system documentation, standards, and corporate documents are written in roff. The roff output for text devices is still unmatched, and its graphical output has the same quality as other free type-setting programs and is better than some of the commercial systems.
roff is used to format UNIX manual pages, (or man pages), the standard documentation system on many UNIX-derived operating systems.
This document describes the history of the development of the roff system; some usage aspects common to all roff versions, details on the roff pipeline, which is usually hidden behind front-ends like groff(1); a general overview of the formatting language; some tips for editing roff files; and many pointers to further readings.
In 1965, MIT's Project MAC teamed with Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) and General Electric to begin the Multics system A command called runoff was written for Multics in the late 60s in the BCPL language, by Bob Morris, Doug McIlroy, and other members of the Multics team.
Like its CTSS ancestor, Multics runoff formatted an input file consisting of text and command lines; commands began with a period and were two letters. Output from these commands was to terminal devices such as IBM Selectric terminals. Multics runoff had additional features added, such as the ability to do two-pass formatting; it became the main format for Multics documentation and text processing.
BCPL and runoff were ported to the GCOS system at Bell Labs when BTL left the development of Multics.
There is a free archive about historical RUNOFF documents. You can get it anonymously by the shell command
As well, there is a new project for writing a program that can read RUNOFF files , but it does not yet work so far. You can get an early version anonymously by the shell command
The name runoff was shortened to roff. The greatly enlarged language of Ossanna's version already included all elements of a full roff system. All modern roff systems try to implement compatibility to this system. So Joe Ossanna can be called the father of all roff systems.
This first roff system had three formatter programs.
Ossanna's first version was written in the PDP-11 assembly language and released in 1973. Brian Kernighan joined the roff development by rewriting it in the C~programming language. The C~version was released in 1975.
The syntax of the formatting language of the nroff/:troff programs was documented in the famous Troff User's Manual [CSTR~#54], first published in 1976, with further revisions up to 1992 by Brian Kernighan. This document is the specification of the classical troff. All later roff systems tried to establish compatibility with this specification.
After Ossanna's death in 1977, Kernighan went on with developing troff. In the late 1970s, Kernighan equipped troff with a general interface to support more devices, the intermediate output format, and the postprocessor system. This completed the structure of a roff system as it is still in use today; see section USING ROFF. In 1979, these novelties were described in the paper [CSTR~#97]. This new troff version is the basis for all existing newer troff systems, including groff. On some systems, this device independent troff got a binary of its own, called ditroff(7). All modern troff programs already provide the full ditroff capabilities automatically.
The groff system is still actively developed. It is compatible to the classical troff, but many extensions were added. It is the first roff system that is available on almost all operating systems --- and it is free. This makes groff the de-facto roff standard today.
Moreover, one finds there the Original Documenter's Workbench Release 3.3
Some roff implementations provide wrapper programs that make it easy to use the roff system on the shell command line. For example, the GNU roff implementation groff(1) provides command line options to avoid the long command pipes of classical troff; a program grog(1) tries to guess from the document which arguments should be used for a run of groff; people who do not like specifying command line options should try the groffer(1) program for graphically displaying groff files and man pages.
cat file | ... | preproc | ... | troff options | postproc
The preprocessors generate roff code that is fed into a roff formatter (e.g. troff), which in turn generates intermediate output that is fed into a device postprocessor program for printing or final output.
All of these parts use programming languages of their own; each language is totally unrelated to the other parts. Moreover, roff macro packages that were tailored for special purposes can be included.
Most roff documents use the macros of some package, intermixed with code for one or more preprocessors, spiced with some elements from the plain roff language. The full power of the roff formatting language is seldom needed by users; only programmers of macro packages need to know about the gory details.
There are a lot of free and commercial roff preprocessors. Some of them aren't available on each system, but there is a small set of preprocessors that are considered as an integral part of each roff system. The classical preprocessors are
|eqn||for mathematical formulae.|
|pic||for drawing diagrams.|
|refer||for bibliographic references.|
|soelim||for including macro files from standard locations.|
|chem||for drawing chemical formulæ.|
Other known preprocessors that are not available on all systems include
|grap||for constructing graphical elements.|
|grn||for including gremlin(1) pictures.|
The output produced by a roff formatter is represented in yet another language, the intermediate output format or troff output. This language was first specified in [CSTR~#97]; its GNU extension is documented in groff_out(5). The intermediate output language is a kind of assembly language compared to the high-level roff language. The generated intermediate output is optimized for a special device, but the language is the same for every device.
The roff formatter is the heart of the roff system. The traditional roff had two formatters, nroff for text devices and troff for graphical devices.
Often, the name troff is used as a general term to refer to both formatters.
A roff postprocessor is a program that transforms troff output into a form suitable for a special device. The roff postprocessors are like device drivers for the output target.
For each device there is a postprocessor program that fits the device optimally. The postprocessor parses the generated intermediate output and generates device-specific code that is sent directly to the device.
The names of the devices and the postprocessor programs are not fixed because they greatly depend on the software and hardware abilities of the actual computer. For example, the classical devices mentioned in [CSTR~#54] have greatly changed since the classical times. The old hardware doesn't exist any longer and the old graphical conversions were quite imprecise when compared to their modern counterparts.
For example, the Postscript device post in classical troff had a resolution of 720 units per inch, while groff's ps device has 72000, a refinement of factor 100.
Today the operating systems provide device drivers for most printer-like hardware, so it isn't necessary to write a special hardware postprocessor for each printer.
A macro package that is to be used in a document can be announced to the formatter by the command line option -m, see troff(1), or it can be specified within a document using the file inclusion requests of the roff language, see groff(7).
Famous classical macro packages are man for traditional man pages, mdoc for BSD-style manual pages; the macro sets for books, articles, and letters are me (probably from the first name of its creator Eric Allman), ms (from Manuscript Macros/), and mm (from Memorandum Macros/).
Requests are the predefined basic formatting commands similar to the commands at the shell prompt. The user can define request-like elements using predefined roff elements. These are then called macros. A document writer will not note any difference in usage for requests or macros; both are written on a line on their own starting with a dot.
Escape sequences are roff elements starting with a backslash They can be inserted anywhere, also in the midst of text in a line. They are used to implement various features, including the insertion of non-ASCII characters with font changes with in-line comments with the escaping of special control characters like and many other features.
Strings are variables that can store a string. A string is stored by the .ds request. The stored string can be retrieved later by the \* escape sequence.
Registers store numbers and sizes. A register can be set with the request .nr and its value can be retrieved by the escape sequence \n.
The classical macro packages take the package name as an extension, e.g. file.me for a document using the me macro package, file.mm for mm, file.ms for ms, file.pic for pic files, etc.
But there is no general naming scheme for roff documents, though file.tr for troff file is seen now and then. Maybe there should be a standardization for the filename extensions of roff files.
File name extensions can be very handy in conjunction with the less(1) pager. It provides the possibility to feed all input into a command-line pipe that is specified in the shell environment variable LESSOPEN. This process is not well documented, so here an example:
where lesspipe is either a system supplied command or a shell script of your own.
More details for file name extensions can be found at groff_filenames(7).
When editing a file within Emacs the mode can be changed by typing 'M-x nroff-mode', where M-x means to hold down the Meta key (or Alt) and hitting the x~key at the same time.
But it is also possible to have the mode automatically selected when the file is loaded into the editor.
All roff formatters provide automated line breaks and horizontal and vertical spacing. In order to not disturb this, the following tips can be helpful.
The following example shows how optimal roff editing could look.
This is an example for a .I roff document. . This is the next sentence in the same paragraph. . This is a longer sentence stretching over several lines; abbreviations like 'cf.' are easily identified because the dot is not followed by a line break. . In the output, this will still go to the same paragraph.
Besides Emacs, some other editors provide nroff style files too, e.g. vim(1), an extension of the vi(1) program.
The "little language" roff papers are
You can get an archive with most classical roff documentation as reasonable PDF files at github using the shell command
In groff, the man page groff(1) contains a survey of all documentation available in groff.
On other systems, you are on your own, but troff(1) might be a good starting point.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the FDL (GNU Free Documentation License) Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. with the Invariant Sections being the .au and .co macro definitions, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
A copy of the Free Documentation License is included as a file called FDL in the main directory of the groff source package.
The license text is also available on-line at the GNU copyleft site