Designing by Groups of Three

There are usually many paths up the same mountain and rarely only one way of doing things. Some will say that rules and measures weaken our creativity as we write, and others maintain that ignoring the rules of grammar and composition will produce only anarchy (what a teacher of mine once derisively referred to as idiosyncratic writing).

I take a position between these two extremes: creativity and the abandon it sometimes requires is what we need to get started on a piece; from this arises our draft. But rules and the designs they produce are part of an analytical frame of mind, and that belongs properly to our revision work. One unhampered draft and a number (usually) of more disciplined revisions. I think that’s a good route to take.

Design work in writing, then, refers to the judicious changes we make to our draft. One such sentence design tells us to arrange like grammatical elements in groups of three. The technique is called a triad (or tricolon), and you’ll read and hear it everywhere (it’s a particular favorite with the politicians). Here is the opening paragraph in chapter one of Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, published in 2018. It illustrates this triadic design:

There’s a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear
is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and
impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.

The triadic figure is actually employed twice in this short paragraph. The second clause of the first sentence finishes by naming three things with which fear is associated: anger, blame, and envy. The design, remember, requires that all of the three members be of the same grammatical construction; here, each is a noun unqualified by any adjective. Then, in the second sentence, the design appears again, this time not in the form of three nouns, but three verbs: blocks, poisons, and impedes. Each of these, moreover, is a transitive verb, pointing to an object and establishing a parallelism that is innately satisfying to us.

The result? We are confronted by a paragraph very much in control of its ideas. The triadic arrangement not only organizes our thoughts, but presents them with rhythm and balance. It is often a very good idea to read (or mumble if you have to) your work aloud as you revise, the better to hear the cadence and pace of what you’ve written. We respond psychologically (some would say even more deeply than that) to beat and measure, as we do, surprisingly, to the configuration of many things in groups of three (think of the “rule of three” in graphic design, humor, and mathematics). Try reading Nussbaum’s paragraph aloud, and listen to the stress you instinctively place on anger, blame, and envy. This triple downbeat concentrates our attention and implies that the writer has done the hard work of thinking, that she has come to certain conclusions which we are now asked to consider for ourselves.

The tricolon is only one of many such stylistic designs. An excellent work to consult on this topic, and one that I have used for many years with students and clients, is Thomas Kane’s New Oxford Guide to Writing (reissued subsequently as The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing). You’ll find a discussion there of the triadic design, along with many other techniques you can use to strengthen your sentences. I recommend Kane’s work very highly.


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