Thursday, December 6, 2018
Abigail Patthoff, guest blogger, Professor of Legal Writing, Chapman University Fowler School of Law
You may have heard repetition in writing is bad. But that’s only true for accidental repetition. In his essay, The Rule of Three, in the latest volume of Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD, Professor Patrick Barry explains how legal writers can purposefully use repetition to provide rhythm to their writing. Specifically, Professor Barry focuses on the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three is a principle of writing (and speaking) that recognizes the phenomenon that information delivered in groups of three – not in twos, fours, or other groupings – is the most “comforting syntactic set.”
Just as the waltz (three beats) and the chord (three notes) have a pleasant resonance, words or phrases that come in threes have a similar effect on a reader. Famously, in his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln emphasized that the Civil War was fought to preserve “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” If concision were Lincoln’s only aim, he might have instead said the war preserved “the people’s government.” And yet, even in his brief 272-word address, Lincoln chose to use the Rule of Three to make the point. The result is a musical phrase that has remained a memorable part of American history.
But the Rule of Three is not reserved for moments of historical importance. In fact, when you start looking for it, you’ll see the Rule of Three everywhere:
- In advertising – “New Year. New Adventure. New Sale.” (Southwest Airlines)
- In literature – “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” (Sylvia Path, The Bell Jar)
- And in law* – “In subsequent cases also, we have recognized the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” (Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 66 (2000)).
Professor Barry offers these examples and many more. He also offers a formula of sorts for legal writers seeking to add Rule of Three rhythm to their memos and briefs: “short, short, kind of long” or “same, same, kind of different.” It’s as easy as one, two, three.
* See what I did there?