Roy Exum: How About That Tricolon?

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Back in the days when I would drive the weekly carpool of 7th grade boys, we would have a hoot. I would always stop at the Favorite Market sort of place, spark for each kid to get a Coca-Cola and a candy bar – knowing a carload of 12-year-old boys on a ‘sugar-high’ would fit in perfectly at McCallie -- and then give each little guy a quarter. The quick-serve had this pinball-type machine with this saucy cartoon of a come-hither woman and, if you won, you got to advance as a piece of “Dolly the Dish” clothing was whisked away. Obviously she had on more clothes than the Sears Roebuck catalog but the boys loved it, heightened only by the fact the Episcopal priest’s son was one of my riders and one day I actually had to unplug the machine for many good reasons.

I would not allow the radio, instead making each kid tell me what he would do in a potentially-embarrassing situation. An example: “You are at the grocery store with your mother. As you have gotten bored and wondering the aisles, along comes (the mother of a friend all the boys knew who was most attractive.) She would stop her buggy, smiling sweetly because she was glad to see you. The problem is you are caught – you have to stand still to return her good morning – and, as you do you notice there is a big unpleasantness hanging from her nose of which she is unaware.

“What does a gentleman do? … and ‘ignore it’ is unacceptable.” The boys loved my questions but not as much as I would nearly wreck at their hysterical answers. (The right answer is, ‘Pardon me, Mrs. xxxxx, it appears you may need a Kleenex.” Of course, she doesn’t understand and asks you to repeat the question, and you gently nod your head, say not another word, and put your finger on your face at the precise place the hitch-hiker has attached itself to her lower nostril.

But wait! The grand moment occurs when she has found the offender and has hastily removed it. She will be every bit as embarrassed as you would be but don’t shy away! Kill the dragon! Instead you smile happily and take to gospel that a gentleman will quell any embarrassment she may have by saying, ‘Oh, that’s much better …. have a great day, Mrs. xxxxxx’”

Don’t you see, the fact she had a slight makeup problem will be overwhelmed by the discernible fact she will have met a gentleman. I don’t care if you join the Foreign Legion, marry a pigmy in Ecuador, or herd kangaroos down under. The lady will never again hear your name that she doesn’t remember your kindness, your salvation of the embarrassment, or the fact you were such a gentleman in a scant 15-second incident it is unforgettable. “It is a moment like this,” I told the boys, “that I long for every day of my life.”

Suffice it to say during the carpool years we spoke of everything. Once the boys had to name the nine major planets on a test and I would quiz each. Like 12-year-olds the worldwide, “Uranus” would bring howls of laughter and I would stop it with, “You gonna’ laugh like that when someone you know has colon cancer? Of course not! You’re going to say how important the colon is and how the doctors can fix you up in no time. Don’t ever say the stomach leads to the small intestine, which then goes to the large intestine. Now people call the large intestine the colon and there are a couple of hundred thousand cancer cases of the colon cancer every year. No gentleman would dare laugh. The good news is that most can be cured with an early warning but, hey, one more giggle and my prayer will be that by some miracle you’ll be a gentleman by the time it’s not funny anymore. …. and there is this! If just one of you wonders where Uranus is, I’ll pull this car over and kick each of ‘yours’” (Oh, yes, which triggered more more howls of early a.m. laughter.

I loved revisiting the memories of my colon lecture last week when, during my Morning Readings, I came across an unknown something-of-a-thing called a tricolon. Yes, you’ve got ascending colon, a transverse colon, a descending colon and a sigmoid colon but the only place you are going to put your finger on a tricolon is by reading great literary works where a tricolon is three parallel words, phrases, or clauses come in the same bouquet of the sentence.

* * *


(Dr. Richard Norquist, in a story that appeared on the website on July 18, 2019, (under its Humanities banner) and a week ago on “What I Learned About Today,” a laymen’s washdown of sorts via Dr. Norquist has become a rare life’s prize as one who has taught thousand to love the English language and its nuances under the guise of desperately needed college credits. He is the Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and English at Georgia Southern University and the author of several university-level grammar and composition textbooks. Imagine how delighted you would have been in his classroom as he explained the art of the Tricolon)

By Richard Norquist

The tricolon has been used as a rhetorical device by the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, and even Herman from 'The Simpsons.' Tricolon is a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. Plural: tricolons or tricola. Adjective: tricolonic. Also known as a triadic sentence. For example, this tricolonic advice for speakers is generally credited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Be sincere, be brief, be seated."

It's the "sense of completeness," says Mark Forsyth, that "makes the tricolon perfectly suited to grand rhetoric" (The Elements of Eloquence, 2013). Tricolon comes from the Greek, "three" + "unit."


Dorothy Parker – “I require three things in a man. He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.

Robert Maynard Hutchins – “The whole apparatus of football, fraternities, and fun is a means by which education is made palatable to those who have no business in it.”

The Wizard (From The Wizard of Oz) – “You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe.”

President Dwight Eisenhower – “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

President Barack Obama – “Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: 'It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll. / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.'”

Benjamin Franklin – “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay – “Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

     Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

     Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

     I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Eric Bentley – “Ours is the age of substitutes: instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; instead of genuine ideas, bright ideas.”

E.B. White – “In the still air, under the hard sun, gleamed the flags and the banners and the drum majorette's knees.

Annie Dillard – “She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism, his, especially, abdomen.”

Holling Vincoeur – “What a time we had: splashed through bogs, ate like hogs, slept like logs.”

Herman (from The Simpsons) – “The key to Springfield has always been Elm Street. The Greeks knew it. The Carthaginians knew it. Now you know it.”

Quentin Crisp – “If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist.”

John le Carre – “They liked his diffidence when he apologized for the company he kept, his insincerity when he defended the vagaries of his subordinates, his flexibilities when formulating new commitments.”

Jack Sparrow (from The Pirates of the Caribbean) -- I think we've all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically.”

Edmund Crispin – “They chattered with stoic resignation about the state of the war, the quality of the beer, and the minor inconveniences of being alive.”

Carol Smith – “[I]n some unknown sequence, she put out the 'Do Not Disturb' sign, applied pink Estée Lauder lipstick and combed her short auburn hair. She wrote a note on hotel stationery, opened her Bible to the 23rd Psalm and mixed some cyanide into a glass of Metamucil. Then she drank it.”


Gilbert Highet – “Tricolon means a unit made up of three parts. The third part in a tricolon used in oratory is usually more emphatic and conclusive than the others. This is the chief device used in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and is doubled at its conclusion:

     'But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.'

     '[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'

Although Lincoln himself knew no Cicero, he had learnt this and other beauties of Ciceronian style from studying the prose of the baroque age.


From Alan Partington:

[I]n the tricolon joke, the narrative is repeated so that it becomes a script or 'acquired information,' and this repetition sets up expectations about the series, the model being followed. The third part of the tricolon is then employed to upset these expectations in some way. Here is [a] tricolon joke:

“There are three Irishmen stranded on an island. Suddenly a fairy appears and offers to grant each one of them one wish. The first one asks to be intelligent. Instantly, he is turned into a Scotsman and he swims off the island. The next one asks to be even more intelligent than the previous one. So, instantly, he is turned into a Welshman. He builds a boat and sails off the island. The third Irishman asks to become even more intelligent than the previous two. The fairy turns him into a woman, and she walks across the bridge.

“ The joke begins with a mix of three joke-scripts: the DESERT ISLAND, the GODMOTHER-THREE WISHES and the ENGLISHMAN, IRISHMAN AND SCOTSMAN. A script is built up within the world of the joke of HOW TO GET OFF THE ISLAND. The script expectations are doubly defeated in the third section of the tricolon. Not only is no intelligence required to leave the island, the intelligent third member of the trio, instead of being the expected 'Englishman' (in the English version of the joke, of course), is a woman, and the joke is partly on the listener, especially if male and English.”

* * *

So, there we are: the 12-year-olds revel in the planet Uranus, those much older delight in a newly-found tricolon, and my discovery makes for what: a tricolon of course.

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