The rule of three

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The rule of three

This is an old trick of the trade that doesn't get mentioned a lot nowadays (it's called tricolon in classical rhetoric), but that crops up all the time in good writing. The idea is simple: lists of all kinds (of things, qualities, actions, reasons, examples, etc.) tend to come across most powerfully when they contain three items. Of course that doesn't mean you should manipulate your material to make it fit. Sometimes you'll want to put two, four, or more items in a list. But when you've got flexibility in what to say, keep the rule of three in mind:

Coriolanus doesn't hide his contempt for the commoners, he doesn't flatter them, he doesn't try to soften his image.

A generation ago most scholars believed that an overarching worldview—conservative, deeply Christian and essentially medieval in its commitment to order and hierarchy—shaped the concerns and defined the intellectual limits of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists.

The third term is often slightly larger in its focus than the first two, enfolding them to make a more general point.


You and I really don't belong in the most formal academic writing. Directly addressing the reader or referencing oneself changes the dynamic of the essay or paper. ===============================================================

Clichés can be a writer’s worst enemy, and the reader usually doesn’t like clichés much either. Writers from Jonathan Swift to George Orwell have ranted against the cliché like it was the Devil tempting an innocent seminary student (1).

Clichés are the metaphors and turns of phrase that have become tired through overuse (2). All walks of life is a cliché, along with behind the eight ball and cried over spilled milk. When these appear in copy, editors usually reach for a blue pencil or red pen and ask the writer to come up with something better. 

The word cliché began as a nineteenth-century French term for a stereotype printing plate made from metal type. Books in high demand were printed from the plates until the plates wore out, just like a cliché is used until the energy of its first appearance is lost.

The Old Gets New and Old Again 

Clichés can also be built on other clichés to become new but  just as tiresome. Pass the buck is a nineteenth-century poker expression that crept into everyday speech. A knife with a buckhorn handle was used as a marker to show who was next to deal. If the player turned down the position, he passed the "buck" to the next player.


President Harry S. Truman turned the phrase and used the buck stops here to signal not that he was the next dealer, but that the decisions made by his administration were his responsibility alone.


He had a desk sign made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma in 1945 with the saying the buck stops here, and soon the phrase was popularized into meaninglessness. I'm From Missouri, which was on the reverse side, was fortunate to escape this fate.


Aged and on the Way Clichés 

Many clichés are also terribly out of date. For example, lock, stock, and barrel first appeared in the letters of Sir Walter Scott in 1817, and refers to the pieces of a musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the stock is the wooden butt, and the barrel is the long piece from which the bullets come out. There is no reason to use this saying today except in period fiction.


The same goes for sell like hot cakes. It's not a reference to a hearty breakfast, but instead to early-American cornmeal cakes cooked in pork fat or bear grease and sold at fairs and church benefits.


Back in the day is a newcomer to clichés. It's only been around since 1997 (1)* and some claim that it's still fresh enough to be used. But the rule still applied: when everyone else is using a phrase or expression, make sure you don’t.


How to Handle Clichés 

Clichés often appear in early drafts when you're trying to keep the writing going but you've run out of words to describe an action, event, or person. That's fine, but it's a good reason to do successive drafts--no one gets it right the first time. Read through your article or story with the meanest critic’s eye. Do not be afraid to hurt your own feelings. Delete anything that might resemble a cliché and replace it with words of your own.


Striking Back at Clichés 

Good writers avoid clichés wherever they might lurk. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart (3).” 


Now that you understand clichés, remember--the quick and dirty tip is get rid of them.



Essays about literature tend to function almost wholly in the present tense, a practice that can take some getting used to. The rationale is that the action within any literary work never stops: a text simply, always is. Thus yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Ophelia goes mad; "The Lost World" asks what it means to grow up; Wordsworth sees nature as an avenue to God; and so on. When in doubt, stick to the present tense when writing about literature.

An important exception to this general rule is demonstrated in the following example. As you read the excerpt, pay attention to the way the writer shifts between tenses, using various past tenses to refer to completed actions that took place in the actual past, and using the present tense to refer to actions that occur within, or are performed by, the text.

In 1959 Plath did not consciously attempt to write in the domestic poem genre, perhaps because she was not yet ready to assume her majority. Her journal entries of that period bristle with an impatience at herself that may derive from this reluc-tance....But by fall 1962, when she had already lost so much, she was ready.... In "Daddy" she achieved her victory in two ways. First,...she symbolically assaults a father figure who is identified with male control of language.

—Steven Gould Axelrod, "Jealous Gods" (ch. 25)


Titles Underline or italicize the titles of all books and works published independently, including:

  • long poems (Endymion; Paradise Lost)

  • plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Death and the King’s Horseman)

  • periodicals: newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and the like (New York Times; College English)

Use quotation marks for the titles of works that have been published as part of longer works, including:

  • short stories ("A Rose for Emily"; "Happy Endings")

  • essays and periodical articles ("A Rose for ‘A Rose for Emily’ "; "Art and Ideology in Far from the Madding Crowd")

  • poems ("Daddy"; "Ode to a Nightingale")

Generally speaking, you should capitalize the first word of every title, as well as all the other words that aren’t either articles (e.g., the, a); prepositions (e.g., among, in, through); or conjunctions (e.g., and, but). One exception to this rule is the poem in which the first line substitutes for a missing title (a category that includes everything by Emily Dickinson, as well as the sonnets of Shakespeare and Edna St. Vincent Millay). In such cases, only the first word is capitalized. Often, the entire phrase is placed in brackets—as in "[Let me not to the marriage of true minds]"—but you will just as often see such titles without brackets.


When first referring to an author, use his or her full name; thereafter, use the last name. (For example, although you may feel a real kinship with Robert Frost, you will appear disrespectful if you refer to him as Robert.)


A thesis is to an essay what a theme is to a short story, play, or poem: it’s the governing idea, proposition, claim, or point. Good theses come in many shapes and sizes. A thesis cannot always be conveyed in one sentence, nor will it always appear in the same place in every essay. But you will risk both appearing confused and confusing the reader if you can’t state the thesis in one to three sentences or if the thesis doesn’t appear somewhere in your introduction, usually near its end.

Regardless of its length or location, a thesis must be debatable—a claim that all readers won’t automatically accept. It’s a proposition that can be proven with evidence from the text. Yet it’s one that has to be proven, that isn’t obviously true or factual, that must be supported with evidence in order to be fully understood or accepted by the reader. The following examples juxtapose a series of inarguable topics or fact statements—ones that are merely factual or descriptive—with thesis statements, each of which makes a debatable claim about the topic or fact:



"The Story of an Hour" explores the topic of marriage.

In "The Story of an Hour," Chopin poses a troubling question: Does marriage inevitably encourage people to "impose [their] private will upon a fellow-creature" (537)?

"The Blind Man," "Cathedral," and "The Lame Shall Enter First" all feature characters with physical handicaps.

"The Blind Man," "Cathedral," and "The Lame Shall Enter First" feature protagonists who learn about their own emotional or spiritual shortcomings through an encounter with a physically handicapped person. In this way, all three stories invite us to question traditional definitions of "disability."

The experience of the speaker in "How I Discovered Poetry" is very ambiguous.

In "How I Discovered Poetry," what the speaker discovers is the ambiguous power of words—their capacity both to inspire and unite and to denigrate and divide.

"London" consists of three discrete stanzas that each end with a period; two-thirds of formal techniques the lines are end-stopped.

In "London," William Blake uses a variety of to suggest the unnatural rigidity and constraints of urban life.

A Streetcar Named Desire uses a lot of Darwinian language.

A Streetcar Named Desire asks whether or not it is truly the "fittest" who "survive" in contemporary America.

Creon and Antigone are both similar and different.

Creon and Antigone are alike in several ways, especially the inconsistency of their values and the way they are driven by passion below the surface of rational argument. Both are also one-sided in their commitments.... This does not mean, however, that they are equally limited in the values to which they adhere.
—Mary Whitlock Blundell, "Helping Friends..." (ch. 31)

Directory: ourpages -> auto -> 2009
2009 -> Persuasive Essay Prompt act
2009 -> Industrial Revolution world history unit IV: chapter 9 Beginnings of Industrialization
2009 -> Objectives: swbat identify the subdivisions of the peripheral nervous system, and describe their functions. Swbat contrast the simplicity of the reflex pathways with the complexity of neural networks
2009 -> Homework writing calendar
2009 -> World Studies Chapter 14 10 Point Essays
2009 -> Rubric: Thematic Essay
2009 -> Concluding Remark Commentary
2009 -> Guide to writing successful Comparative Essays
2009 -> Find a topic. Select a few potential subjects (may or may not be from the list of black poets above) and decide which one most appeals to you
2009 -> Writing a Document-Based Question (dbq) Essay Examples of Historical Documents

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