Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Rule of Three

I came, I saw, I conquered.
--Julius Caesar

Why is this quote so memorable?

It's memorable because Caesar used one of the simplest and most flexible tools of writing: the rule of three.

The number three is truly a magic number in writing and speaking. Sentences with three items read more smoothly than sentences with two or four. Persuasive statements carry more force when they contain three items. And three is the ideal number of key points to have in a speech, because an audience can always remember three distinct items--and so can the speaker.

Even jokes tend to be more amusing when they contain three elements. The comedy show South Park recently gave us a textbook (and wonderfully tasteless) example of the elegance of the rule of three. Note the rhythm of the three parts of the joke--the setup line, the reinforcing line and the punchline:

Do you like fish sticks?
Do you like to put fish sticks in your mouth?
What are you, a gay fish?

--From "Fish Sticks"

More examples of famous quotes using the rule of three:

Friends, Romans, countrymen!
--Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization; Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
--Ronald Reagan, the Tear Down This Wall speech

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
--From the United States Declaration of Independence

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.
--Attributed to Albert Einstein

...a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
--Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address

And later in the Gettysburg Address there's an example of nested threes:
...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Try using the rule of three in your writing and see for yourself how powerful a tool it can be.