Tricolon Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Tricolon example with Julius Caesar
One of the most famous tricolons is the succinct Latin remark attributed to Julius Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). John Seaton Callahan/Getty Images

Tricolon is a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. Plural: tricolons or tricola. Adjective: tricolonic. Also known as a triadic sentence.

For example, this tricolonic advice for speakers is generally credited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Be sincere, be brief, be seated."

It's the "sense of completeness," says Mark Forsyth, that "makes the tricolon perfectly suited to grand rhetoric" (The Elements of Eloquence, 2013).

Tricolon comes from the Greek, "three" + "unit."

Examples and Observations

  • "I require three things in a man. He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid."
    (attributed to Dorothy Parker)
  • "The whole apparatus of football, fraternities, and fun is a means by which education is made palatable to those who have no business in it."
    (Robert Maynard Hutchins, "Where Do We Go From Here in Education?" Speech to the Economic Club of Detroit, May 12, 1947)
  • "You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe."
    (The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
  • "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.
    "It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."
    (President Dwight Eisenhower, "The Chance for Peace." Speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April, 1953)
  • "Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: 'It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll. / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.'"
    (President Barack Obama, speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela, December 10, 2013)
  • "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."
    (attributed to Benjamin Franklin, among others)
  • "Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."
    (Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Dirge Without Music")
  • "Eye it, try it, buy it"
    (marketing slogan for Chevrolet in the 1940s)
  • "Ours is the age of substitutes: instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; instead of genuine ideas, bright ideas."
    (Eric Bentley, "The Dramatic Event")
  • "In the still air, under the hard sun, gleamed the flags and the banners and the drum majorette's knees."
    (E.B. White, "Bond Rally")
  • "And the fan takes over again, and the heat and the relaxed air and the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin."
    (E.B. White, "Here Is New York")
  • "She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism, his, especially, abdomen."
    (Annie Dillard, The Maytrees)
  • "What a time we had: splashed through bogs, ate like hogs, slept like logs."
    (Holling Vincoeur, Northern Exposure)
  • "The key to Springfield has always been Elm Street. The Greeks knew it. The Carthaginians knew it. Now you know it."
    (Herman, "Bart the General," The Simpsons)
  • "If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist."
    (Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, 1968)
  • "They liked his diffidence when he apologized for the company he kept, his insincerity when he defended the vagaries of his subordinates, his flexibilities when formulating new commitments."
    (John le Carré, Call for the Dead, 1961)
  • "I think we've all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically."
    (Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • "They chattered with stoic resignation about the state of the war, the quality of the beer, and the minor inconveniences of being alive."
    (Edmund Crispin [Bruce Montgomery], Holy Disorders, 1945)
  • "[I]n some unknown sequence, she put out the 'Do Not Disturb' sign, applied pink Estée Lauder lipstick and combed her short auburn hair. She wrote a note on hotel stationery, opened her Bible to the 23rd Psalm and mixed some cyanide into a glass of Metamucil.
    "Then she drank it."
    (Carol Smith, "The Cipher in Room 214." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 6, 2005. Rpt. in The Best Creative Nonfiction, ed. by Lee Gutkind. W.W. Norton, 2007)

Tricolons in the Gettysburg Address

"Tricolon means a unit made up of three parts. The third part in a tricolon used in oratory is usually more emphatic and conclusive than the others. This is the chief device used in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and is doubled at its conclusion:

'But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.'

'[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'
Although Lincoln himself knew no Cicero, he had learnt this and other beauties of Ciceronian style from studying the prose of the baroque age."

(Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. Oxford University Press, 1949/1985)

The Tricolonic Joke

"[I]n the tricolon joke, the narrative is repeated so that it becomes a script or 'acquired information,' and this repetition sets up expectations about the series, the model being followed. The third part of the tricolon is then employed to upset these expectations in some way. Here is [a] tricolon joke: There are three Irishmen stranded on an island. Suddenly a fairy appears and offers to grant each one of them one wish. The first one asks to be intelligent. Instantly, he is turned into a Scotsman and he swims off the island. The next one asks to be even more intelligent than the previous one. So, instantly, he is turned into a Welshman. He builds a boat and sails off the island. The third Irishman asks to become even more intelligent than the previous two. The fairy turns him into a woman, and she walks across the bridge. The joke begins with a mix of three joke-scripts: the DESERT ISLAND, the GODMOTHER-THREE WISHES and the ENGLISHMAN, IRISHMAN AND SCOTSMAN. A script is built up within the world of the joke of HOW TO GET OFF THE ISLAND.

The script expectations are doubly defeated in the third section of the tricolon. Not only is no intelligence required to leave the island, the intelligent third member of the trio, instead of being the expected 'Englishman' (in the English version of the joke, of course), is a woman, and the joke is partly on the listener, especially if male and English."
(Alan Partington, The Linguistics of Laughter: A Corpus-Assisted Study of Laughter-Talk. Routledge, 2006)

The Lighter Side of Tricolons: An Unfortunate Series

"A nervous-looking Cameron, dressed in a pink sleeveless shirt, black pants and chewing gum, appeared before Judge Leslie Brown in an LA court on Thursday."
("Model Cara Cameron Jailed for Killing Gary Mara." The Sydney Morning Herald, December 6, 2013)

Pronunciation: TRY-ko-lon