The Magic of Three

Just because HIP novels are geared to struggling readers doesn’t mean we don’t sneak in some literary devices here and there. And one of our favourites is the tricolon, or, as we like to call it, the magic of three.  There is something about grouping words, phrases or even sentences into grammatically parallel triplets that engages readers’ ears, minds and emotions. (See what I mean?)

What is it about the number three that makes it so magical? Through time eternal, across history, science, art and literature, people have latched onto the number three to help them make sense of the world.  In art, there are 3 primary colors. In mathematics, 3 is  the smallest number to form a geometric shape.  In general, three is a little more than some and a little less than many.

Conveying an idea or image in triplets of three words or groups of words adds rhythm and cadence to writing. In an article in the New York Times, Andy Newman describes words in threes as “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”  But, for some reason, ideas that come in threes are funnier, more poignant, or more memorable than other numbers of things. We know that the brain is a pattern-seeker. And three is the smallest number needed to form a pattern. That’s why readers are more likely to be engaged by and remember ideas presented in threes.

There’s a principle of advertising that might be applied to any piece of writing:  The mission [of writing] is to attract a reader so that he will start to read it; then to interest him, so that he will continue to read it; then to convince him, so that he will believe it.  

Whatever the magic, conveying ideas or images in triplets is a useful literary device and it’s fun and easy to teach students. For examples and teaching ideas, check out

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