Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The power of three

with 16 comments

Winston Churchill
Image via Wikipedia

Some years ago, Dr Max Atkinson conducted an experiment. He wanted to find out if a novice public speaker could achieve a standing ovation for her maiden speech at a political party conference. In fact, the response of the audience was so enthusiastic that she ran out of time due to the amount of applause that repeatedly interrupted her speech.  You can read about it and see a film of the event on Dr Atkinson’s website.

How did he do it? One of the main devices he used is both simple and effective: lists of three. Lists of two don’t cut the mustard (we’re left hanging) and lists of four or more are usually overkill.

The magic number when speaking and writing is three.

Winston Churchill was, of course, an outstanding and inspirational speaker. He often used lists of three:

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

As Dr Atkinson points out in his fascinating book Our Masters’ Voices, Churchill achieved additional resonance from the contrast (another key device) between ‘so much/so many’ and ‘so few’.

Once you get your ear in (as it were) you will hear politicians using this ‘list of three’ device all the time.  The audience’s response is usually Pavlovian. As already mentioned, it works just as well in writing too.

Here are some more examples:

I came, I saw, I conquered. (Julius Caesar)

…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. (Lincoln, Gettysburg address)

So: understand each other, respect each other, act with each other… (Tony Blair, speaking in Washington at the Common Word Conference, 2009)

And from Obama’s victory speech:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.

If you’re interested, Wikipedia has a brief explanation of technical terms relating to ‘lists of three’.

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16 Responses

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  1. That’s because Churchill had only blood, toil, and tears to offer — oh, and sweat.

    Michael Farrell

    15/07/2010 at 5:02 pm

    • Ah — but in the same speech he also said:

      Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be…

      Deborah

      15/07/2010 at 5:19 pm

      • That fell under his “rule of ones.”

        Michael Farrell

        15/07/2010 at 7:27 pm

        • Ah yes, the famous rhetorical rule of ones. I have a post planned on that very topic.

          Deborah

          15/07/2010 at 7:50 pm

  2. I very much appreciate your kind remarks about a book I wrote more than 25 years ago, but I would like to put the record straight on one or two points.

    The televised experiment was a genuine experiment. We really didn’t know whether or not it would work and certainly never expected (or promised her) a standing ovation. In fact we were just as surprised as she was that the speech went down so well.

    Anyone curious about lists of three might like to look at a blog post in which I suggest that it derives from a regularity in everyday conversation that was first described by the late Gail Jefferson: ‘Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason’ http://bit.ly/cgfuZS

    I’d also note that ‘Our Masters’ Voices’ was never intended to be a ‘how to do it’ book, not least because I didn’t realise at that stage that it would have any practical applications at all. Since then, however, I have written two ‘how to do it’ books based on work done since publishing OMV. Further details of these (and links to Amazon!) can be seen on the top line of my blog’s home page at http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com

    Max Atkinson

    15/07/2010 at 9:22 pm

    • Hello, there! Thanks so much for all that info and the links. I’ll amend the post accordingly. I attended a course you ran some years ago and it has always stayed in my mind.

      Thanks again and kindest regards.

      Deborah

      Deborah

      15/07/2010 at 10:26 pm

  3. Does Blair’s mantra of “education, education, education,” count as the laziest example of a tricolon?

    awindram

    15/07/2010 at 10:36 pm

    • Hi — welcome to Wordwatch Towers. Yes, I’d say so. And the most meaningless. And quite possibly the most irritating.

      Nice to see you here. Thanks for commenting.

      Deborah

      15/07/2010 at 10:39 pm

      • Thank you, Deborah. I’ve been lurking for some time, but only now have plucked up the courage to comment. I went through state education in the 80s and 90s so am woefully aware that my own knowledge of grammar is somewhat lacking and requires constant refreshers.

        awindram

        15/07/2010 at 11:41 pm

        • Oh, you’re more than welcome here. I suffered a 70s state education. It doesn’t get much more dire than that. I’ll always be glad to hear from you.

          Deborah

          15/07/2010 at 11:45 pm

          • Erm, it does, Deborah – in the fifties it was quite appalling. Luckily, though, I got the best, most dedicated, teacher of English you could wish to meet.

            Too ill for sports or PE, from 13 to 15 he had me doing old English exam papers instead – O-level and, eventually, A-level English papers, plus whatever else he could get his hands on. He marked them too – it wasn’t just to pass the time – I had to perform well.

            It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate how hard he must have worked to be able to do that – he must have collected them from across the country.

            How much I owe him, of course, I’ve always known. . .

            Ron

            16/07/2010 at 11:35 am

            • Hi, Ron — that’s a really nice story. Did you ever get the chance to tell him what a difference he’d made?

              Deborah

              16/07/2010 at 11:40 am

              • Unfortunately not – “always known” is something of an exaggeration.

                It was only when I started training as a adult literacy tutor, in the eighties and, later, blogging, that I came to realise that and, by then, it was too late. But, given the results he got out of me, I’m pretty sure he knew, better than I did, what I was capable of.

                Ron

                16/07/2010 at 11:53 am

                • I enjoyed reading Ron’s story about his wonderful English teacher – people often don’t appreciate how hard some teachers work and how crucial their influence can be. My grade 11 & 12 English teacher (in the 70’s)was a nun called Sister Murphy, who sparked lively debates in class – nothing was off-limits: abortion, racism, sexism, atheism (all the ‘isms!) and then she sent us home to craft our thoughts and position on the topic on paper. She also introduced us to Dostoyevsky, V. Woolf, George Eliot, Shakespeare & Flaubert, among others. She definitely set me on the academic path that I chose. Oh – and she also used to smell of tobacco which was pretty scandalous back then 🙂

                  Jo-Anne

                  16/07/2010 at 12:37 pm

                  • Hi, Jo-Anne — that’s a lovely story too. Thanks for taking the time to share it. I particularly like the bit about her smelling of tobacco.

                    Also – thanks for your recent off-blog message. It was very kind of you and I appreciated it very much.

                    Deborah

                    16/07/2010 at 12:40 pm

  4. You’re very welcome.

    Jo-Anne

    16/07/2010 at 12:43 pm


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