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What Is a Tricolon?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2016
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Tricolon refers to poetic verses that are organized in three similar-sounding phrases. Perhaps one of the more famous examples is the Latin expression "veni, vidi, vici" by Julius Caesar, or "I came, I saw, I conquered." When translated from the original language, however, the verse technically loses its tricolon construction, since the number of syllables are no longer equal — a poetic device known as parallelism.

This tricolon framework can be found in many popular expressions and mottoes across the globe. For instance, France's memorable motto is "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite." Other popular expressions that use this device with just one word per section to make their meaning more memorable include the public safety message "stop, drop and roll" and U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous declaration of "Duty, Honor, Country." When just repeating words are used, the tricolon is called a hendiatris.

Many famous phrases throughout history have utilized a tricolon approach, which is the most basic illustration of the ancient rule of three. This rule does not require exact syllabic parallelism, but rather some form of literary organization dealing in threes. The following quotation from former British leader Winston Churchill, for example, does not have three exactly equal parts: "Never in the history of human endeavor has so much been owed by so many to so few." Nevertheless, this sentence has the same gravity as if it were made up of three perfectly equal parts.

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As a rhetorical device without exactly matching parts, the tricolon could take on even more contrived forms. When the sentence slowly builds or recedes in tone and syllables, this is commonly called a tricolon crescendo or decrescendo. These devices are part of a larger category of repeating tools known to the ancient Greeks as anaphora.

Some may forgo the rule of three in favor of other famous poetic constructions. A bicolon, for instance, uses a single repetition and not three. Further, a tetracolon involves four points to form the matter into the shape of the square, as opposed to the bicolon's straight line approach and the tricolon's triangle.

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