What number do these have in common?
- mile limit of international law
- Hector’s body dragged around Troy’s walls
- geometrical figure regarded as perfect by the ancient Greeks
Did you guess?
Let me make it easier.
- Shakespeare’s witches
- Billy Goats Gruff
- Goldilocks’s bears
Got it now?
What do you know about the symbolism of numbers?
One (1) is generally considered to signify unity, symbolizing God or the universe.
Four (4) represents order in the universe, as in the four elements of earth, air, fire and water; the four seasons; the four points of the compass; and the four phases of the moon.
Seven (7) is mystical, associated with the stages of a female’s life, the length in days of each stage of the moon, the number of planets known by early cultures, ancient Egypt’s paths to heaven and halls of the underworld, and the candles of the menorah.
Which number is seen as most significant?
Throughout history, though, “in the extent, variety, and frequency of its use the number 3 far surpasses all the rest.” So writes Emory B. Lease, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan.
in his article, “The Number Three, Mysterious, Mystic, Magic,” in Classical Philology, Lease presents a fascinating history of the appearance of three in religion, literature, folklore, medicine, government, education and other areas.
Three (3) is considered “whole,” in representing beginning, middle and end; past, present and future; and earth, water and sky. It is that perfect triangle, complete unto itself with three sides and three angles.
Three shows up in literature as great as Macbeth,The Three Musketeers and Greek myths and as common as The Three Little Pigs and The Three Stooges.
Three even turns up in law and the tripartite division of our government and in the breakdown of army groups (3 battalions=1 regiment, 3 regiments=1 brigade, 3 brigades=1 division, 3 divisions=1 corps, 3 corps=1 army). We give out gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals. The Dies Irae, a hymn used in the Catholic requiem mass, comprises 3×3 stanzas, each with 3 verses and a triple rhyme.
From County Clare, Ireland, here’s how to get rid of warts: Steal a piece of meat, and rub it around the wart three times, saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Of course, that’s the Christian trinity. Hindus, Egyptians, Chaldeans, Mongolians, Phrygians, Scythians, and Babylonians are only a few of the other societies throughout history that recognize(d) religious trinities. I could write a book on the myriad religious references to threes.
You writers have already thought of the 3Rs, of course, but have you realized all of the threes in grammar (3 persons, 3 numbers, 3 voices, 3 genders, 3 degrees of comparison, 3 kinds of accent)?
Examples of the Magic in Writing
You can use the “Rule of Three” to add impact to your writing, too. Take a look at some examples of this creative power:
“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…”
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people…” –Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln
The iPad 2: “thinner, lighter, and faster” –Steve Jobs
“Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.) –Julius Caesar
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” –Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Declaration of Independence
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” –Benjamin Disraeli
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.” —Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
“Duty—Honor—Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be.” –Gen. Douglas MacArthur
“Location, location, location.” –Realtors everywhere
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” –Lyndon Baines Johnson
“Sorry I can’t personally answer the phone. I’m either motivating thousands of people, appearing on the Oprah show…or taking a nap. Please leave a message and I’ll return your call when I wake up.” –John Kinde
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” –Acceptance speech for Nobel Prize in Literature, William Faulkner
Interestingly, Winston Churchill’s “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” First speech as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Oops! That’s four items, isn’t it? Interestingly, this phrase is usually remembered as “blood, sweat and tears.” People unwittingly make it into a three.)
You’ve likely heard most of these quotations. As we humans seem to have a natural affinity for things grouped in threes, their speakers’ use of the magic of that number figures strongly in why they are easy to remember.
This week, start searching out examples of threes that add impact to writing. Add them to the comments below. In my next post, I’ll show you several different ways to use the “Rule of Three” to add creative power to your own writing.
Thanks for reading!