How the number pi inspired a writing style
Share on Linkedin
Pi Day is 14 March, corresponding to the 3.14 of its first three digits (Credit: iStock)
The number pi, which is celebrated with its own day on 14 March, has inspired “Pilish” – a fiendishly challenging form of writing. There’s even a Pilish novel. Give it a go yourself, it can be strangely addictive...

3.1415926535… Beautiful, isn’t it? The number pi has fascinated humanity for millennia. Representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, it was long understood that pi must be irrational – a number whose digits after the decimal point continued to infinity. Here are a million digits of pi, for example. You get the idea.

One of the most elegant attempts to harness the beauty of pi for artistic purposes is via the writing style of Pilish. In Pilish, the length of words match the numbers as written in the sequence of digits in pi. 

Watch the 30-second video below to learn how to write a Pilish poem – a piem! 

How to write in Pilish

Here’s a piem written by one of the BBC Future team:

Wow (3), a (1) star (4)

A (1) fiery (5) supernova (9)

In (2) cosmic (6) burst (5)

Wow! (3)

What better way to honour Pi Day – 14 March – than with some piems? Contribute your own via our Facebook page. (Fair warning – once we started writing in Pilish at BBC Future, we found it quite addictive.)

And if you’re feeling really up for a challenge, others have also celebrated Pi Day by experimenting with “pi-kus” – poems in which the number of syllables match the digits of pi. NPR did this in 2008, for example. (Some also interpret pi-kus as piems that follow the conventional haiku syllable structure.)

Mike Keith has written short stories in Pilish – and even a whole novel

There are lots of helpful resources online if you want to check your work. Mike Keith has written short stories in Pilish – and even a whole novel, Not A Wake. He has some advice on the rules of Pilish on his website.

There’s also a Pilish checker which can help you quickly ensure that you haven’t deviated from the digits of pi. The checker automatically counts the letters in each word you have written.

Can you write in Pilish? (Credit: iStock)

Can you write in Pilish? (Credit: iStock)

If you are wondering whether Pilish phrases ever crop up accidentally in literature, you’re not alone. In fact, in 2010, Nick FitzGerald – then an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia – analysed thousands of books to see how many phrases compliant with Pilish he could find.

The longest Pilish string in most books is around three to five words

“Somewhat disappointingly, the longest of any Pilish string was eight digits of pi,” wrote FitzGerald. “The vast majority of books had a longest Pilish string of around three to five words.”

Just five books had Pilish phrases of eight words.

This shows, perhaps, the strangeness of Pilish as a form – and that may indeed explain why sentences written in Pilish sound so poetic, since they are inherently exotic and unnatural.

To close, here’s one more piem to give you a little inspiration:

Yes, I want,

A slice,

Delicious pi,


Read more: Why pi is one of the most important numbers in the Universe

Join 500,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the BBC