Writing in Pilish

The word-length π mnemonic constraint



The idea of writing a sentence (or longer piece of poetry or prose) in which the lengths of successive words represent the digits of the number π (=3.14159265358979...) has been around since the early 1900's.  One of the earliest and most well-known examples is the following sentence, believed to have been composed by the English physicist Sir James Jeans:

How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!

The first word in this sentence has 3 letters, the next word 1 letter, the next word 4 letters, and so on, following the first fifteen digits of the number π.  A longer example is this poem with ABAB rhyme scheme from Joseph Shipley's 1960 book Playing With Words:

But a time I spent wandering in bloomy night;

Yon tower, tinkling chimewise, loftily opportune.

Out, up, and together came sudden to Sunday rite,

The one solemnly off to correct plenilune.

It is no coincidence that this poem (as well as every π mnemonic written prior to the 1990's) stops shortly before the 33rd digit of π, because that digit of π is a 0.  How should zeros be handled in this scheme?  Some writers have used punctuation or formatting of the text to indicate zeros - for example, the end of each sentence could be a zero, or just certain punctuation marks such as commas and/or semicolons.  However, these methods are somewhat artificial, and not as good (as a mnemonic device) as one that relies solely on the number of letters in each word.  We don't know who, but someone eventually thought of using 10-letter words to represent zeros, which seems like quite a good solution.  With this method not only single zeros but runs of zeros (like 00 or 000) become easy to handle.  We call this form of writing Basic Pilish, with "Pilish" being our word for "English that follows the successive digits of pi."  To summarize, the rules are:

In Basic Pilish, each word of n letters represents

(1) The digit n if n<10

(2) The digit 0 if n=10

This rule works very nicely for hundreds of digits, enabling the construction of long π texts in which the constraint is nearly invisible to the reader.  But eventually one encounters a small problem, which leads to the development of...

Standard Pilish

A small but troubling issue with Basic Pilish is that long runs of small non-zero digits (like 1121 or 1111211) are difficult to deal with in a natural-sounding way, since it is uncommon to have a long series of one-letter words in English.  A second problem with Basic Pilish is that words greater than 10 letters in length can never be used, which poses a problem if one wants to write about such common topics as, say, objectivism, or a cheeseburger.


Several methods can be devised for dealing with these two issues, but the one we like best is the one that leads to the rules of Standard Pilish, which is simply Basic Pilish augmented by a third rule:

In Standard Pilish, each word of n letters represents

(1) The digit n if n<10

(2) The digit 0 if n=10

(3) Two consecutive digits if n>10
          (for example, a 12-letter word represents the digits 1,2)

Although rule (3) might seem like a special case, it is really rule #2 that is the exceptional one if we describe the algorithm this way:

To recover the digits of π from a text in Standard Pilish, write the number of letters in each word next to the word (except if the word has 10 letters, in which case write a 0).  Then read off all the digits in order from beginning to end to get the value of π.

Since Standard Pilish gives the writer slightly more expressiveness with no reduction in mnemonic power, we generally choose to use this variation in our π writings.  But not always - see "Bemused" for an example in Basic Pilish, written that way because it was a response to a writing challenge on confiction.org, who required that it be in the Basic form.

Punctuation Rules

To be precise it is necessary to specify how punctuation is interpreted in a Pilish text - more generally, how any symbol that is not a letter (A-Z or a-z) is interpreted.  The rules we use are as follows:

(1) If a word contains one or more apostrophes, eliminate them and close up the resulting space.  So couldn't is treated as if it were couldnt and therefore counted as a 7.  The alternative, to treat apostrophes as delimiters, is clearly not the right choice, since then couldn't would become two digits (6,1). 


(2) Any character that is not a letter or an apostrophe is a delimiter, which is equivalent to saying that it is treated as if it were whitespace.

An important consequence of rule #2 is that a hyphenated compound adjective, such as fun-filled, is treated as two separate words and therefore generates two separate digits (in this case, 3 6).  Again, this seems to be clearly the better choice, rather than interpreting fun-filled as a 9.


These rules tell us that marks of punctuation do not generate any numbers when converting the text to digits.  Suppose we want to write fun and games but the next two digits of π are 3 and 5.  We can get what we want by writing fun & games, since the ampersand is ignored in the text-to-digits translation.  We think tricks like this should be used sparingly, but given the punctuation rules they are there for the using.

Alphabetic or Alphanumeric?

There's another independent choice that can be made: are the groups of consecutive non-punctuation symbols that we call words (whose length is to be counted to determine the encoded digits) composed only of letters (A-Z or a-z), or are numerical digits (0-9) also allowed?  We give each of these options a name, as follows:

Alphabetic Pilish: words consist of letters only

Alphanumeric Pilish: words can contain both letters and numbers

In Alphabetic Pilish, numbers are simply ignored.  You can write the year 2010 or the number e (2.718281828459045...) and these will have no meaning when extracting the encoded digits from the text.  In Alphanumeric Pilish, however, "2010" is a string of length 4 and thus represents the digit 4.  Writing "2nd" to mean "second" results in the digit 3, since "2nd" has 3 alphanumeric characters.


We don't claim that one of these choices is "better" than the other, and we have used both of these in major compositions.  Cadaeic Cadenza uses Alphanumeric Pilish whereas Not A Wake uses Alphabetic Pilish.  Take your pick.