jan Kekan San

jan Kekan San

Prepositions and Context

Check out the video lesson too!

Table of Contents

Words to Know

Content Words

Word Definition Writing
tool, instrument, machine A hammer shape!
time, duration, event, occurrence A clock, with hands pointing up and right
up, sky, spiritual, godly Three increasingly deep divets, then a vertical line on the right
below, under The bottom half of a box with a dot beneath
dirt, ground, place, location, country A circle with a plus in it, like a marker on a map
road, path, method, way, process A vertical line with an up-facing arrow through its center
furniture, horizontal surface A table with legs tilted outward slightly
beside, side, hip The bottom half of a box with a dot to the right
move, travel Pair of legs walking to the right
truth, existence, reality, real A flat line with a dot over the center
cause, origin A curved arrow pointing from the right to the left
same, similar An equals sign
usage, the act of using A hand shape with a hammer shape on top


Word Definition Writing
to, travel to, for, in the opinion of Pair of legs walking to the right
in the context of, in the presence of A flat line with a dot over the center
by, from, because of A curved arrow pointing from the right to the left
similar to An equals sign
to use A hand shape with a hammer shape on top


The word “preposition” comes from these words marking times and place- the “pre” part is for the fact that these words come before positions.

Prepositions add context to a sentence. When using a preposition, you say the word and a phrase following it- the phrase is the context, and the word tells you what kind of context it is!

Focus on where the preposition is in the next few sentences!

A preposition may appear after the object:

suno li walo e kiwen tawa lukin

After the predicate, without an object:

kasi li kama wawa tan telo pona

Or right after li as the predicate:

ona li sama mi mute

Prepositions appear last in a statement. Keep that in mind!

Every Preposition


tawa is all about context, so watch carefully!

tawa can describe moving toward a specific place or thing:

mi tawa telo suli

I’m traveling to the ocean!

ona li pana e sona tawa jan ante

They gave knowledge to different people.

tawa can describe perspective, like English “to”: description from the point of view of something or someone!

ni li pona mute tawa mi

This is fantastic to me!

This is so good in my opinion!

kasi ni li suli tawa jan

This plant is huge to people!

This plant is huge compared to people!

And tawa can describe purpose, like English “for”: doing an action on something or someone’s behalf.

jan li pali e ni tawa sona

The person created this for understanding!

mi ni tawa ona

I did this for them.

You can tell these different uses of tawa apart by context. For example, if the speaker is explaining why they did something, that would be about purpose. Or, if the speaker is giving their opinion, that would be about perspective. You’ll get used to these different ideas as you practice!


lon is used for location, telling where or when something is!

This can be a place:

kulupu li lon kiwen walo jelo

The group is on the yellow and white rocks!

It can also be about time, when or for how long something happens. This uses one new word besides lon, tenpo:

suno li lon tenpo suli

The sun has existed for a long time.

It will be sunny for a long time!

And it can be about ideas, like subjects in a conversation:

mi toki lon sona alasa mi

I am talking about my hunting knowledge!

I am talking about my searching knowledge.

All of these are different kinds of locations. Try lots of things out!


tan talks about the cause or origin of something. It is similar to “from” or “because of” in English.

This can describe some kinds of motion, or where something is from:

mi tan kulupu musi

I’m from a comedy troupe!

I got here from the improv group.

It can also describe the cause of something:

mi wawa tan moku pona

I’m strong because of good food!

Remember: tawa talks about purpose, while tan talks about cause. To tell them apart, ask yourself: is one making the other happen? If so, that’s tan!


sama talks about the similarity of things. This may be to compare the subject to something:

pali sona sina li sama pali pi mama mi

Your teaching job is the same as my dad’s job!

Your programming work is the same as my mom’s work!

Or to compare the subject’s action to something:

ona li ken tawa wawa sama jan wawa

They can move quickly, like a sprinter!

They can move powerfully, like a weight-lifter!

sama covers all kinds of sameness- a little similar, identical, and everything between!


jan li seli e moku kepeken ilo seli

The person is cooking the food using a heating tool.

kepeken means “to use”. The thing in a kepeken prep phrase is being used by the subject, maybe for some action or maybe in general. That’s it!

Now that we’ve covered all the prepositions, here are some important notes about using them!

Right After li

You might have noticed that the prepositions are a little different if they’re right after li / mi / sina or on their own! In the predicate, they describe the subject, such as an action the subject takes. Separate, prepositions describe where, when, how, or why the action happens- this still applies to the subject, but is a bit more indirect. Again, you’ll get used to the difference, but it’s right in the grammar when you need it!

Multiple prepositions

When a prepositional phrase is complete, you can start another one. You can do this as many times as you want, but fewer is clearer. Some examples:

ona li kama jo e pan suwi tan jan pi pali moku, tawa pilin pona

They received some cake from a baker, to feel better

ona li toki lon lape ona, sama mama pi jan mi

They talk in their sleep, same as my partner’s dad!

They talk when napping, like my friend’s mom!

pilin mi li kama pona tan lape, tan tawa telo

My feelings have gotten better from sleeping and from swimming.

Otherwise, the rules are the same as with just one preposition!

The commas are present to separate the two prepositions. They aren’t needed- just helpful!

ala and prepositions

You can negate prepositions by putting ala after the preposition.

kiwen suno li tawa ala mi

The shiny rock is not for me!

jan pali li kepeken ala lipu ni

The workers are not using this document!

mi pilin nasa sama ala sina

I’m feeling weird, unlike you.

This sentence doesn’t clarify which thing is not similar- and that’s okay!

This is so simple, you already got it!

Stick to negating predicates, modifiers, pre-predicates, or prepositions. Clean and clear!

A note about ala with other things

Negating the subject (jan ala li …) and negating the prepositional phrase (… tan sona ala) can give you a similar result to negating the preposition. Can.

Most of the time, it makes things confusing! What does it mean when jan ala li kepeken sona? Or when mi tawa musi sama sina ala?

The first is something like “Not-people” or “Non-persons” use knowledge. And the second is “I dance the same way as not-you.” These can be confusing- make sure you clarify yourself with another sentence, or restate!


Toki Pona to English

One Preposition

You’re walking through a convention center, when somebody runs up and says hi! They know you from your outreach work, and are excited to meet you. They open up with:

sina tan kulupu pi jan pana

You’re from the philanthropy community!

You’re on a tour of a factory, watching how various household objects get made. As you walk, you observe marvelous machinery working hard- and then come across one machine in particular wielding another machine! You remark:

ilo li pali e supa kepeken ilo ante

The machine is creating furniture using other machines!

You have been using a new studying method for school work. The way it helps you dig through material is clear and concise, and you always feel like you have a good grasp on the concepts after. You recommend it to others, saying:

nasin sona ni li pona tawa sona jan

This learning method is great for people’s understanding.

Every time you try to take a vacation, something comes up and you have to cancel. It’s like the universe is conspiring against you. You’ve been planning a trip to the Bahamas for months, but your boss said you can’t take the time off. You’re starting to think they’re doing it on purpose. You think to yourself:

mi pali lon tenpo mute! mi wile tawa ma ante

I work too much. I want to go somewhere different!

Your friend has been reading somebody’s blog, and feeding you hints as to its topic as they go. You’re not sure what it’s about, and your friend won’t tell you no matter how much you ask! Until one day, barely stifling a chuckle, they tell you:

ma li supa sama supa moku

The earth is flat like a dinner plate!


Your teacher is emphasizing the relative size of the earth in comparison to other objects. This is an important idea for students to understand, because it helps them to put the earth’s size into perspective. It also helps them to understand that the earth is a huge object, and that it is much larger than any one person. Your teacher says:

ma li suli ala tawa sewi. ona li suli tawa jan

The earth isn’t large compared to the sky. It’s large compared to people.

Multiple Prepositions

You’re back home again, feeling great because of your trip, but there’s one thing wrong: you have a limp! You’re in too good a mood to let it get you down, but one of your friends asked what happened. You explain:

mi pilin ike tan tawa anpa lon tenpo poka

I’m feeling bad because I fell down recently.

A close friend is going on a long trip, and doesn’t know when they’ll be back. They gave you something important to them- a bracelet they’d had for years. You try to refuse it, saying it’s too important to them to give away. But your friend insists, saying:

mi pana e ni tawa sina tan wile mi

I’m giving this to you because I wanted to.

After quitting your job, you find yourself with brand new freedom. You cut down your expenses, sell some stuff, and start traveling with the saved money. When you get to your first destination, you realize something even better with great excitement! In a shocked, hushed tone you say:

mi ken lon ma ale lon tenpo ale

I can be in any place, at any time!

ala and Prepositions

You’re sitting in class, learning about how plants have adapted to a variety of different environments. However, there are some environments that plants haven’t adapted to, such as the cold and thin air on tall mountains! The teacher says:

kasi li lon ala ma sewi

Plants aren’t on ground that is way high up!

There’s a storm, and the wind is whipping past you at an alarming speed! As the storm comes in, the wind picks up ferociously, blowing the plants and the trees around. As you watch, you notice the shrubs and grasses being blown over without resistance, then rising back up. But the trees have their branches torn away. You remark:

kasi lili li sama ala kasi suli

The shrubs and grasses are not similar to the trees.

You’re having a discussion with some friends about where you grew up, and how that influenced the way you think. For many of them, their life philosophies came from where they grew up, but you feel differently and say:

nasin mi li tan ala ma mi

My philosophy is not from where I was born!

You’re trekking through a desert with a guide, stopping rest through the night. Your guide explains that you need to bundle up: the temperature of the desert depends on the sun, so the desert will become freezing when the sun sets. You ask a follow-up question: if it gets cold enough, will there be ice? And the guide explains:

kiwen lete li lon ala ma ni tan ni: telo li lon ala

There is no ice here because of this: there is no water.

English to Toki Pona

Everyone is on the road. They’re heading to the cool caves!

jan ale li lon nasin! ona li tawa ma anpa pona

jan ale li tawa nasin! ona li tawa ma anpa pona

jan ale li tawa ma anpa pona

You can look at the gravel on the mountain from here!

sina ken lukin e ma lon ma sewi tan ma ni

sina ken lukin e ko lon ma sewi tan ma ni

sina ken lukin e kiwen lili mute lon ma sewi tan ma ni

I’m sitting in a pretty chair.

mi lon supa pona

mi awen lon supa ni: ona li pona tawa lukin

I’m giving this to my brother for your sake.

mi pana e ni tawa jan poka mi. ni li tawa sina

In this case, using the tawa preposition twice is confusing, since it could mean another person getting something from pana! The second use of it is moved to a separate sentence.

My books are on a big bookshelf!

lipu mi li lon supa suli

lipu mi li lon supa suli lipu

My books fell off my bookshelf…

lipu mi li tawa anpa tan supa mi

The white and blue are strange-looking together

walo en laso li nasa tawa lukin lon poka



Prepositions extend the grammar once more! You can now include a new phrase in your sentences, which occurs in the predicate, after the predicate, or after the object- last in the statement. Here are some examples of this idea:

[subject] (li) (preposition [prep phrase])

[subject] (li) [predicate] (preposition [prep phrase])

[subject] (li) [predicate] (e [object]) (preposition [prep phrase])

Keep in mind: if a preposition comes right after li it’s still the predicate!

New Ambiguity

You may have noticed during the lesson that the word tawa is used often as a normal content word and as a preposition. It gets modified often too. Telling tawa preposition apart from tawa as a content word can be difficult!

Toki Pona doesn’t have a way of telling apart modified tawa from tawa preposition. But the two can be told apart easily, especially as you practice. tawa near the end of the sentence, and especially after an object, is a preposition more often than not. tawa in the predicate is generally a modifier.

This applies to every preposition, but understandably, it affects tawa the most. If you’re ever unsure, ask somebody for help with reading, or ask for a restatement when speaking!

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