Rule of three (writing)

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For other uses, see Rule of Three.

The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.[citation needed] The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans ("Go, fight, win!") to films, many things are structured in threes. Examples include The Three Stooges, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Musketeers.

A series of three often creates a progression in which the tension is created, built up, and finally released. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.

The Latin phrase, "omne trium perfectum" (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.


In comedy, it is also called a comic triple. Three is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people's minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the 3rd element.

Fairy tales[edit]

In storytelling in general, authors often create triplets or structures in three parts. In its simplest form, this is merely beginning, middle, and end, from Aristotle's Poetics. Syd Field wrote a popular handbook of screenwriting, in which he touted the advantages of three act structure over the more traditional five act structure used by William Shakespeare and many other famous play-writers.

Snow White receives three visits from her wicked stepmother

Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folk Tale, concluded that any of the elements in a folk tale could be negated twice, so that it would repeat thrice.[1] This is common not only in the Russian tales he studied, but throughout folk tales and fairy tales—most commonly, perhaps, in that the youngest son is often the third, but fairy tales often display the rule of three in the most blatant form, a small sample of which includes:

  • Rumpelstiltskin spins thrice for the heroine and lets her guess his name thrice over a period of three days.
  • In East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the heroine receives three gifts while she is searching for her lost husband; when she finds where he is prisoner, she must use them to thrice bribe her way to the hero (the first two times she was unable to tell her story because he lay in a drugged sleep).
  • In Brother and Sister, Brother is transformed into a deer when he drinks from the third stream that their wicked stepmother enchanted, and when Sister is killed by the same stepmother, she visits her child's room thrice, being caught and restored the third time.
  • The hero used magical horses to climb thrice to The Princess on the Glass Hill.
  • In The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, a woman says she will bear the king three marvelous children; when they reappear, their envious aunts attempt to kill them by sending them on three quests, after the three marvelous things of the title.
  • In The Silent Princess, a prince breaks a peasant woman's pitcher thrice, and is cursed; when he finds the title princess, he must persuade her to speak thrice.
  • In The Love for Three Oranges, the hero picks three magical oranges, and only with the third is able to keep the woman who springs out of it.

In many tales, three tasks must be performed to reach a certain goal.


  • In the Musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye must give his three eldest daughters away, one after another. Each match progressively challenges his faith, as represented by a monologue in which he argues with himself using the phrase "on the other hand" to play the devil's advocate and convince himself to side with his daughters. This is subverted with the youngest daughter who wishes to marry outside the faith. For which Tevye concludes that "No, there is no other hand."

Rhetoric and public speaking[edit]

The use of a series of three elements is also a well-known feature of public oratory. Max Atkinson, in his book on oratory entitled Our Masters' Voices[2] gives interesting examples of how public speakers use three-part phrases to generate what he calls 'claptraps', evoking audience applause.

Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist and preacher was also known for his uses of tripling and the rule of three throughout his many influential speeches. For example, the speech "Non-Violence and Racial Justice" contained a binary opposition made up of the rule of three: "insult, injustice and exploitation," followed a few lines later by "justice, good will and brotherhood." Conversely, segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace inveighed: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his 1963 inaugural address.

The appeal of the three-fold pattern is illustrated by the transformation of Winston Churchill's reference to "blood, toil, tears and sweat" (echoing Garibaldi and Theodore Roosevelt) in popular recollection to "blood, sweat and tears." Similarly, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan[3] describes the importance of community, without which life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".″ This has been reduced to the commonly heard triad "nasty, brutish and short."

The Welsh Triads and Irish Triads suggest the use of threes was also a mnemonic device—easy-to-learn verses that were pointers to other information also committed to memory by Druids.

Another type of usage for the Rule of Three is using the same word in three times to emphasize meaning in speaking and dialogue. This use in public speaking developed in Southern Spain, particularly in the Córdoba region.


A common feature of legal documents which give property or grant rights as drafted by legal professionals perpetuates old English practice in which the rule of three echoes the intended Act by the varying restatement of the act in triplicate. For example, in a Will or Trust instrument the phrase "I give, devise and bequeath ..."

Oath by a witness in a US court proceeding is asked to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth..."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968, p. 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  2. ^ Atkinson, J. Maxwell. Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics. London: Methuen, 1984. ISBN 0-416-37690-8
  3. ^ Wikipedia, Thomas Hobbes