The Rule of Three – It’s as easy as A,B,C

Watch the slide show and guess what all the phrases have in common.

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I’m sure you’ve worked it out.

All the phrases are easy to remember because they follow the rule of 3.

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Location, location, location.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!!!

Every good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

What is the rule of 3?

Information that comes in sets of three seems to be more effective and easier to consume and remember.

Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools, suggests that we use:

one item for power

two items for comparison and/or contrast

three items for completeness

Here are 3 examples of completeness:

Stop, look and listen.

Peace, love and understanding.

The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.

What other ways can we use it?

We can also use the rule of 3 when we want to highlight the most important item in a set:

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Notice how the use of ‘and’ prepares the reader or listener – they know that the final item is the key to the message.

Sometimes the item is repeated three times to demonstrate how important it is:

Location, location, location.

Our priorities are education, education, education.

The rule of 3 can be used in the same way to surprise the reader / listener (and the element of surprise makes the message more memorable.

Stand up, speak up and shut up.

The first two verb phrases are neutral so the listener relaxes. The final verb phrase ‘shut up‘ surprises the listener and forces them to pay attention.

It’s common to use alliteration in the rule of three. Alliteration is when a series of words have the same sound, for example, stand up, speak up, shut up.

hip! hip! hooray!

Cool, calm and collected.

Going, going, gone.

Rhyming words are frequently used but we often change the pattern for the final item (the element of surprise again).

Ready, steady, GO!!

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

In fact, the final element is often different to the first two items (different sound, longer or shorter, change of idea) and leads to memorable results:

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Seen it, done it, bought the T-shirt.

The rule of three is also used with longer phrases or complete sentences.

One popular tip for planning a presentation is:

Tell them what you are going to tell them.  Tell them what you are telling them. Tell them what you have just told them.

So, to sum up, 3 is the magic number  and the rule of three:


What other three-part phrases can you think of? Can you create your own three-part phrases?