Isocolon: A Rhetorical Balancing Act

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Isocolon is a rhetorical term for a succession of phrases, clauses, or sentences of approximately equal length and corresponding structure. Plural: isocolons or isocola.

An isocolon with three parallel members is known as a tricolon. A four-part isocolon is a tetracolon climax.

"Isocolon is particularly of interest," notes T.V.F. Brogan, "because Aristotle mentions it in the Rhetoric as the figure that produces symmetry and balance in speech and, thus, creates rhythmical prose or even measures in verse" (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2012).

Pronunciation

 ai-so-CO-lon

Etymology

From the Greek, "of equal members or clauses"

Examples and Observations

Winston Churchill: Come then: let us to the task, to the battle, to the toil--each to our part, each to our station. Fill the armies, rule the air, pour out the munitions, strangle the U-boats, sweep the mines, plow the land, build the ships, guard the streets, succor the wounded, uplift the downcast, and honor the brave.

Orual in Till We Have Faces: Nothing that's beautiful hides its face. Nothing that's honest hides its name.

James Joyce: Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.

G.K. Chesterton: An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.

Ward Farnsworth: Isocolon... one of the most common and important rhetorical figures, is the use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure. . . . In some cases of isocolon the structural match may be so complete that the number of syllables in each phrase is the same; in the more common case, the parallel clauses just use the same parts of speech in the same order. The device can produce pleasing rhythyms, and the parallel structures it creates may helpfully reinforce a parallel substance in the speaker's claims... An excessive or clumsy use of the device can create too glaring a finish and too strong a sense of calculation.

Richard A. Lanham: Historians of rhetoric continually puzzle over why the isocolon habit so thrilled the Greeks when they first encountered it, why antithesis became, for a while, an oratorical obsession. Perhaps it allowed them, for the first time, to 'see' their two-sided arguments.

Earl R. Anderson: Isocolon is a sequence of sentences of equal length, as in Pope's 'Equal your merits! equal is your din!' (Dunciad II, 244), where each sentence is assigned five syllables, iconizing the concept of equal distribution... Parison, also called membrum, is a sequence of clauses or phrases of equal length.

Sister Miriam Joseph: The Tudor rhetoricians do not make the distinction between isocolon and parison...The definitions of parison by Puttenham and Day make it identical with isocolon. The figure was in great favor among the Elizabethans as is seen from its schematic use not only in Euphues but in the work of Lyly's imitators.