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What Is a Tricolon?

Writing With the Magic Number Three

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As defined in our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms, a tricolon is a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. It's a simple enough structure, yet potentially a powerful one. Consider these familiar examples:

  • "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
    (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)


  • "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)


  • "This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
    (Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address)

What's the secret to composing such moving prose? It helps, of course, if you're writing on the occasion of a momentous event, and it certainly doesn't hurt to bear the name of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt. Still, it takes more than a name and a great occasion to compose immortal words.

It takes the magic number three: a tricolon.

In fact, each of the well-known passages above contains two tricolons (though it could be argued that Lincoln slipped in a series of four, known as a tetracolon climax).

But you don't have to be an American president to use tricolons effectively. A few years back, Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the New York Daily News, found an occasion to introduce a few of them at the end of an editorial.

Citing "the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in his opening sentence, Zuckerman goes on to argue that defending America against terrorism "means our traditions of free speech and free association have to be adjusted." The editorial drives toward this forceful one-sentence conclusion:

This is a critical time for leadership the American people can trust, leadership that will not conceal what can be explained (and justified), leadership that will hold our liberties sacred but understand that our freedoms, enduring through civil turmoil, hardship and war, will be at risk as never before if the American people conclude, in the wake of another catastrophe, that their safety has come second to bureaucratic inertia, political expediency and partisanship.
("Putting Safety First," U.S. News and World Report, July 8, 2007)

Now, count the tricolons:

  1. "leadership the American people can trust, leadership that will not conceal what can be explained (and justified), leadership that will hold our liberties sacred but understand that our freedoms . . . will be at risk as never before"

  2. "our freedoms, enduring through civil turmoil, hardship and war"

  3. "their safety has come second to bureaucratic inertia, political expediency and partisanship"

A trio of tricolons in a single sentence, outdistancing Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Though not quite as rare as a triple axel in figure skating, a triple tricolon is almost as hard to achieve with grace. Whether or not we share Zuckerman's sentiments, the rhetorical force with which he expresses them can't be denied.

Now, does Mort Zuckerman make a habit of mimicking the prose style of the Declaration of Independence? Of course not. Only every now and then can anyone get away with such oratorical flourishes. You must wait for the right moment, make sure the occasion is appropriate, and be certain that your commitment to a belief is commensurate with the vigor of your prose. (Note that the final item in a tricolon is often the longest one.) Then you strike.

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