Rule of three (writing)

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The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers in execution of the story and engaging the reader.[1] The reader or audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.[2][3] It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.

Slogans, film titles and a variety of other things have been structured in threes, a tradition that grew out of oral storytelling.[4] Examples include the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Three Musketeers. 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.


The rule of three can refer to a collection of three words, phrases, sentences, lines, paragraphs/stanzas, chapters/sections of writing and even whole books.[3][5] The three elements together are known as a triad.[6] The technique may be used not just in prose but poetry, oral storytelling, films and advertising. In photography, the rule of thirds produces a similar effect by dividing an image into three vertically and horizontally.[7]

A tricolon is a more specific use of the rule of three where three words or phrases are equal in length and grammatical form.[8]

A hendiatris is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a single central idea.[6] As a slogan or motto, this is known as a tripartite motto.[9]

Slogans and catchphrases[edit]

Many advertising campaigns and public information slogans use the technique to create a catchy, memorable way of displaying information. In marketing theory, American advertising and sales pioneer St. Elmo Lewis laid out his three chief copywriting principles, which he felt were crucial for effective advertising:

"The mission of an advertisement is to attract a reader so that he will look at the advertisement and start to read it; then to interest him, so that he will continue to read it; then to convince him, so that when he has read it he will believe it. If an advertisement contains these three qualities of success, it is a successful advertisement."[citation needed]

Better-known examples include:


In comedy, it is also called a comic triple.[15] The third element is often used to create an effect of surprise with an audience, especially if it differs from the first two.[3] For instance, jokes might feature three stereotyped individuals—such as an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman; or a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead—where the surprise or punchline of the joke comes from the third character.

Fairy tales[edit]

In storytelling, 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 playwrights.

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 folktale could be negated twice so that it would repeat thrice.[16] 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 usually the third, although fairy tales often display the rule of three in the most blatant form. A small sample of the latter 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.
  • 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 he able to keep the woman who springs out of it.


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,[17] 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 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".[18] Conversely, segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace inveighed: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his 1963 inaugural address.[19]

The appeal of the three-fold pattern is also 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".[20][21] Similarly, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan 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 three's was also a mnemonic device—easy-to-learn verses that were pointers to other information also committed to memory by Druids.


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.[citation needed] For example, in a Will or Trust instrument the phrase "I give, devise and bequeath ..."

Usually (in court) a common example is quoted: "tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.[22][relevant? ]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "How to Use the "Rule of Three" to Create Engaging Content - Copyblogger". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  2. ^ "What is the mysterious 'Rule of Three'? | Copywriters of Distinction". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  3. ^ a b c "Writing: The power of three". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  4. ^ "Toastmasters, November 2013". Toastmaster. p. 17.
  5. ^ Craigie, Alex. "Do You Use The Rhetorical "Rule of Three"?". At Counsel Table. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  6. ^ a b "How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  7. ^ "Rule of Thirds - Digital Photography School". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  8. ^ "One, Two, Three: What Is a Tricolon?". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  9. ^ Ltd., Blair. "ODLT dictionary definition of Tripartite motto". Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  10. ^ "Slogan of the French Republic". Archived from the original on 2015-05-12. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  11. ^ Sweney, Mark. "Mars revives 'Work, rest, play' slogan with ad featuring bell-ringing monks". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  12. ^ "Stop, Look and Listen - Child Road Safety Game - Tales of the Road". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  13. ^ "Crossing Ahead, Stop, Look And Listen". Archived from the original on 2015-12-11. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  14. ^ " Registration". Archived from the original on 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  15. ^ "The Rule of Three and the Comic Triple | Critique Circle". Critique Circle. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  16. ^ Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968, p. 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  17. ^ Atkinson, J. Maxwell. Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics. London: Methuen, 1984. ISBN 0-416-37690-8
  18. ^ "Nonviolence and Racial Justice" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  19. ^ Governor George Wallace of Alabama. "Inaugural Address (1963) The "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever" Speech" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  20. ^ "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  21. ^ "Presentation Skills 3. The Rule of Three". Retrieved 2015-06-01.
  22. ^ "N.D.R.Ct. 6.10 Courtroom Oaths". Retrieved 2015-06-01.