Remember the Tricolon

By Maeve Maddox

A tricolon is a rhetorical device that employs a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. The word derives from Greek tri (“three”) + colon (“section of a sentence”). The plural of tricolon is tricola.

Julius Caesar’s famous “Veni, vidi, vici” is a tricolon consisting of three verbs. The tricolon is phrased in ascending order, culminating with the most important action: “I came, I saw, [and] I conquered.”

Churchill’s famous line in praise of the Royal Air Force repeats a “so” phrase: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Phrased in descending order or with an unexpected combination of words, a tricolon can be used for humorous effect, as in this quotation ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “I require three things in a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”

Tricola are at work in the answers to these two questions:

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
—Practice, practice, practice.
What are the three things that matter in property?
—Location, location, location.

Quotations that remain in the memory long after one’s school days often contain tricola:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

of the people, by the people, for the people

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Many of our idioms, clichés, and fossilized legal phrases take the form of tricola:

Every Tom, Dick and Harry
Lock, stock, and barrel
Wine, women, and song
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Advertisers and PR agents understand the power of the tricola:

Power, beauty, and soul (Aston Martin)
Keeps going and going and going. (Energizer)
Grace…space…pace. (Jaguar)
Snap! Crackle! Pop! (Rice Krispies)
Buy it. Sell it. Love it. (Ebay)
Thinner, lighter, and faster. (iPad2)
Stop, Look, and Listen (Traffic safety slogan)
Drop, Cover, and Hold On (Earthquake/tornado safety slogan)

One of the most useful aspects of this rhetorical device is its effectiveness in embedding a thought in the memory.

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2 Responses to “Remember the Tricolon”

  • Michael W. Perry

    Yes, just like the tale of the three bears. When two is too few and four seems like too many, go with three.

    Here’s what Wikipeda says about the rule of three:

    The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern. It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_three_(writing)

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

  • Roberta B.

    The tale of the 3 bears! That’s good for basic comparisons – too much, too little, or just right.

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