Toki Pona: Jan Mate’s Style Guide Version 1

English has several style guides, Chicago, Strunk, etc. Here is my style guide for toki pona.  This is not a static guide–I hope to improve it.  I also hope I can distinguish style from grammar–as grammar creation is something only jan Sonja or the collective speakers of toki pona can do. I will try to emphasize that by saying “should” when it is a matter of style, “must” when I think I’m just repeating a grammar point.

There are several styles of speaking in toki pona.  Simple, Unambiguous, Cultural and Exact.  The simple style is what jan Sonja had in mind when inventing the language.  All the other styles are grammatical and in varying degrees of use, especially when translating a text into toki pona or when trying to communicate without fear of misunderstanding.


Simple speech avoids long modifier strings, things that require exactness, and anything that is hard to do in toki pona.  A translation to the simple style will dispose with great quantities of fine distinctions.

Simple Style, Rule 1: Drop modifiers where possible.

  • waso li lon telo.  The ducks are on the pond. 

Simple Style Rule 2: Drop pronoun modifiers

  • mi li musi.  We had fun.

Simple Style Rule 3: Drop time references.

  • mi li musi. We’ll have fun.

Simple Style Rule 4: Change proper modifiers to phrases when possible

  • mi moku e telo pi pona sijelo. I drank cough syrup.


Unambiguous speech tries to be clear, but avoid metaphors, culturally dependent phrases and most idioms that are not immediately obvious to a reasonably clever person.

Unambiguous Style Rule 1: Qualify until it’s obvious as possible, but don’t include non-obvious idioms.

  • mi pilin ike mute.  I’m feeling blue.  Could also mean “My tactile sensations are deficient”, such as in leprosy. If this was a potential confusion, then write:
  • mi pilin ike mute lon lawa.

Unambiguous Style Rule 2: Use pronoun modifiers when useful

  • mi mute li musi.  We had fun.
  • mi tu li musi. Us two had fun.

Unambiguous Style Rule 3: Use time references when useful.

  • tempo kama la mi li musi. We’ll have fun.

Unambiguous Style Rule 4: Say it in more than one way.

In toki pona, especially when first learning the language, you have to be creative with the coining of noun phrases, verb phrases and grammatical structures.  Use more than one to insure against the chance that one sentence is reduced to gibberish, either by lack of cleverness on the readers part or a typo.

Semantically Complete

Exact speech is like telling someone a recipe or directions to get to the hospital.  Long phrases, math, and opaque idioms are okay.  Some vocabulary can only be translated by coining idioms. For example, “crab grass”, “maxilla”, “glucose” will

Semantically Complete Style Rule 1: Define and use idioms for jargon.

  • mi lawa jo e pilin pi pilin anpa.  I’m clinically depressed.

Semantically Complete Style Rule 2: Leave proper modifiers untransliterated, but always include the category word i.e. “toki” in “toki Inli” 

  • mi moku e telo “Robitussin”


Cultural speech uses similes, metaphors and words that make sense in a cultural context.  It is important to establish what your cultural context is before using toki pona in a cultural style. 

Cultural Style Rule 1: Use similes, metaphors and the like.

  • mi pilin laso.  I’m feeling blue. (lit I’m feeling in a blue like fashion)
  • kalama musi laso li pona tawa mi.  I like listening to the blues.

Cultural Style Rule 2: Use prepositions metaphorically.

  • mi toki lon Inli.

Good Style Regardless to Context

Order of Modifiers

Possessives *should* come last.  Commonly used idioms, e.g. jan lili, child, *should not* be split.

  • [better] jan lili mije mi – my son
  • [worse] jan mije lili mi – my son (feels like my young man)
  • [worst] jan mi mije lili – my son (feels like small male person of mine)

Adverbial Phrase vs Verbal Modifier

Prefer adverbial phrases to verbal modifiers for describing how an action occurs.  Adverbial phrases are everything before the “la”, verbal modifiers are everything after the verb but before the “e” or any of the six prepositions.

Some “la” phrases have started to become mildly idiomatic.

  • pona la mi musi e ilo musi.  Fortunately, I play a musical instrument.
  • mi musi pona e ilo musi.  I play a musical instrument well

[I will post more style advice as it occurs to me--usually when reading a piece of particularly opaque toki pona.]

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