Rhetorical Devices: Tricolon

This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link.

Device: Tricolon

Origin: From the Greek τρία (tria), meaning “three” and κῶλον (kôlon), meaning “member” or “clause”.

In plain English: A series of three words, phrases or sentences that are parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm.


  • Three words, phrases or sentences combine to make a single, powerful impression.
  • A tricolon allows you to emphasize your point in a pithy and memorable way.
  • A tricolon is a powerful device for humour. The first two elements get the audience thinking you are going in one direction, but the third element introduces an unexpected twist. Just think of any joke that begins, “Three ___ walk into a bar …”. See, also, the quotes from Dorothy Parker and Johnny Depp at the end of the post.


  • Tricolons are one of the most powerful rhetorical devices. There is something almost magical about the number three.
  • In his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark writes: “[T]hree provides a sense of the whole … the number three is greater than four. The mojo of three offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more. … Use one for power. Use two for comparison, contrast. Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.”
  • A tricolon that is only three successive words is also known as a hendiatris. Examples include: Veni, vidi, vici.; Citius, Altius, Fortius; and Wine, Women and Song.
  • The elements of a tricolon need not always be the exact same length. In fact, as Mark Forsyth has noted, tricolons sound especially good when the third element is longer than the preceding two; for example, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.


With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

—  Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865


Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

—  Dwight Eisenhower,  Chance for Peace speech, 1953


“After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength.  Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged [with punishments] the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

— Barack Obama, Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela, 10 December 2013


“I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”

—  Dorothy Parker


“I actually feel rather good about this. I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place, eh? Spiritually, ecumenically … grammatically.”

—  Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 197) – One Thousand and One Nights


Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller (1880)

“People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live and why.”

— One Thousand and One Nights (كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎) 

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A presentation lesson from two airport departure boards

This afternoon, I fly to Barcelona for a speaking event. I am packed and ready to go well in advance. In fact, I have enough time that I can sit down and write this post. (The reason for my silence in the blogosphere over the past month or so is that my recent move into public speaking and presentation skills training full time has kept me extremely busy—in a good way—but it is time to get back to regular blogging.)

2015-02-01 10.10.22

The view from Brussels

My impending trip got me thinking about a difference that I have noticed between the departure boards in European airports and departure boards at airports in Canada. (I am speaking, of course, about airports where I have traveled; there may be exceptions.) 

In Europe, departures are arranged chronologically. The flights about to part are at the top of the screen whereas later flights are at the bottom. As flights take off, they are removed from the board and the other flights all shift up.

For example, to the right is a photo that I took at the international airport in Brussels when I spoke at a conference there in January.

When I traveled to Canada last summer, I flew from, or to, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. At each airport, I noticed that the departure boards were organized differently from those in Europe. For example, the next photo is one that I took at Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport. Do you notice the difference? Continue reading

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 196) – Ira Glass

Ira Glass - American Public Radio Personality; Host of This American Life

Ira Glass – American Public Radio Personality; Host of This American Life

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

— Ira Glass

Photo courtesy of Brighterorange / Wikimedia Commons
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Ten Lessons from Steve Martin

I am a big fan of stand-up comedy. I have enormous respect for the men and women—whether professionals or amateurs—who get up on stage and do their best to make us laugh. And though I like many comedians, my all-time favourite is, and will always be, Steve Martin.

BornstandingupI discovered Steve in the ’70s when I was a teenager. His album, A Wild and Crazy Guy, was a revelation for me. I would eventually get all of his comedy albums on vinyl—Let’s Get Small, Comedy is Not Pretty! and The Steve Martin Brothers—and spent hours listening to them. (I kick myself that I gave them away when we moved to Europe.)

Steve left stand-up comedy in the ’80s after 18 years. He has had a successful film career, published several books, written plays and even won a Grammy Award for his outstanding banjo performances the legendary Earl Scruggs. I could go on, but for those of you who are not familiar with Steve, you get the idea. He’s a talented guy.

I recently finished reading Steve’s memoir, Born Standing Up. A terrific read (even if I am biased). Jerry Seinfeld, another comedian whom I think is great, called it “one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written”. Continue reading

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