Rule of Three

Well, here is another writing tip from my teacher.

Rule of Three (or short-short-long) is discussed in video lectures from week 3 of the writing course I am taking from the University of Michigan as a MOOC through Coursera.

He gives some good examples, which I will share with you. For the first example, I will use the Declaration of Independence.

”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.”

Most Rule of Three examples uses a short word or phrase, followed by another short word or phrase, ending with a longer word or phrase, or two shorter syllable words followed by a word with more syllables, and of course, there or variations on this as seen in ”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Try switching the words around —liberty, life, and the pursuit happiness— and you will find they don’t sound just right.

He used the example of the Clint Eastwood movie: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It has a certain rhythm that only works if you follow the rule of three: short, short, long. The good, the ugly, and the bad just doesn’t sound as good as the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Some more examples. Consider a sentence from an essay from a book written by Joyce Carol Oates1:

”It can be argued that all essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity.

I went past Bed Bath and Beyond today as we drove to a restaurant to pick up a meal. Would it sound right if written Bed Beyond and Bath?

Another technique used in these sentences is alliteration, defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as ”the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables (such as wild and woolly, threatening throngs).” Liberty and life in the Declaration of Independence or the repetition of the b in Bed Bath and Beyond are also examples of this.

I hope I have whet your appetite for seeing the Rule of Three in books and the names of stores and applying it to your writing. I’m going to try my best to apply it to mine.

  1. Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Atwan. The Best American Essays of the Century. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000.

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