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.

Effect:

  • 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.

Notes:

  • 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.

Examples:

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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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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17 Responses to Rhetorical Devices: Tricolon

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  5. I love the use of tricolon/hendiatrys for humor as in the last two examples: paraprosdokian. Can we call those examples of tricolon (as opposed to tetracolon) paraprosdokian?

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  7. Nice varied examples here – it’s not often you see quotes from presidents, poets, and pirates!

    Tricolons are great. My current favourite type is a single word or phrase (ideally, of 3 syllables) uttered 3 times. Perhaps the best-known example’s “Location, location, location.”

    This came up on a recent cruise, where I was struck by the power of a phrase the captain said in his daily tannoy announcement. He wanted to avoid a repeat of the infection they’d had just a few weeks before, so each day he’d end with “Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.”

    I thought hard about why his words seemed so powerful, and blogged about the 3 reasons that came to me.

    The names for most of the rhetorical devices are new to me. So I did wonder if there’s some special term for a tricolon where it’s the same element that’s repeated?

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