Rhythms of Three

We often round up vast and complex concepts into tidy rhythms of three—three words, three phrases, three ideas—such as the following:

  • Body, Mind, Soul
  • Reading, Writing, Arithmetic
  • Logos, Ethos, Pathos
  • Protons, Electrons, Neutrons
  • Height, Width, Depth
  • Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
  • Order, Genera, Species
  • Gold, Silver, Bronze
  • Legislative, Executive, Judicial
  • Father, Mother, Child
  • Land, Sea, Air

We tend to use three (rather than two or four) because that is the most economical amount for conveying a pattern. Two of something is merely a pair or coincidence, and a fourth of something is unnecessary to show that it will continue, for the third time’s a charm (or the third strike means you’re out). Any of the subjects listed above is, of course, far more nuanced than three elements can convey, so when we speak of something in a pattern of three, we are summing it up at a high order of abstraction. In other words, we are taking a detailed discussion and elevating it.

For example, notice how the use of patterns of three elevate the following phrases, making them more poetic, more certain, more indelible:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
—Emma Lazarus

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
—Thomas Jefferson

Veni, vidi, vici. (I came; I saw; I conquered.)
—Julius Caesar


This tendency to sum up and to elevate makes patterns of three excellent tools for conclusions in essays. Study the following examples closely—they are each the concluding paragraph to an excellent essay—and see if you can identify the use of patterns of three.

The industrialization—and dehumanization—of American animal farming is a relatively new, evitable and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to do it this way. Tail-docking and sow crates and beak-clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering 400 head of cattle an hour would come to an end. For who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals, we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.

—Michael Pollan, “An Animal’s Place”

Well, great. Serial killers aren’t necessarily spooky; they simply have high metabolisms. And they like to watch Footloose. And to know them means nothing, even if it does. Apparently, there is no one on earth who needs to meet a serial killer more than me; only then will I realize these people are meaningless. Get ready, all ye lonely hitchhikers. My car awaits your empty eyes, your random perversity, and your hand of perpetual doom. One way or the other, I need the truth. The next dance is mine, Cowboy.

—Chuck Klosterman, “This Is Zodiac Speaking”

When I was writing the first draft of this essay in California, on July 23, she erupted again, sending her plume to 60,000 feet. Yesterday, August 7, as I was typing the words “the ‘meaning’ of the eruption,” I checked out the study window and there it was, the towering blue cloud against the quiet northern sky—the fifth major eruption. How long may her labor be? A year, ten years, ten thousand? We cannot predict what she may or might or will do, now, or next, or for the rest of our lives, or ever. A threat: a terror: a fulfillment. This is what serenity is built on. This unmakes metaphors. This is beyond us, and we must take it personally. This is the ground we walk on.

—Ursula K. Le Guin, “A Very Warm Mountain”



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