Teachers at Work

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The Magic of Three: Teaching Students about "Triplets"

Irving Berlin knew it when he wrote, "From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam." Emma Lazarus knew it when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Abraham Lincoln knew it when he wrote, "Of the people, by the people, for the people." And Thomas Jefferson knew it when he wrote, near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and, at the very end, "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." 

Rhetorically, three has magic properties. Something within us is affected by a series of three items, read or spoken, and skilled writers know how to use series of three to appeal to our aesthetic sense, our emotions, and perhaps to something even deeper. But our goal today is practical — making students aware of series of three and showing them that creating them is a technique they can become adept at. They may not produce lofty creations like Lazarus's and Lincoln's — not at first, anyway —  but they will construct serviceable creations. 

I see words, phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs, in series of three every day in The New York Times, and that's where I've drawn the examples from for this essay. Use them to begin making students aware of the literary effectiveness of the triplet, the term I use for the series of three words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs writers intentionally construct for their aesthetic, literary and emotional effect. Your students will find triplets in The Times every day. They're always there. 

The art and craft of creating triplets can be taught in every classroom from junior high up, and even in the lower grades. What students need to know most of all is that they can, indeed, make them; that skillfully employing a series of three words or phrases in one's writing is not just the province of great lyricists, orators and writers. The Times is well-suited to teach triplet writing from because of the excellence of its writing and the variety of topics to be found in it each day, from the lighthearted to the grim. 

Let's start with three triplets from the sports pages, a fertile place to find them because, particularly in their first paragraphs (called leads or ledes, in newspaper lingo), sportswriters like to pack in three ideas at the top of their story that they talk about later, one by one. Note the lilt in each of those italicized sections, as well as the pictorial nature of each item in them.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The last game at the old Yankee Stadium was over, Derek Jeter had offered a spirited speech to the fans and players had scooped up some dirt as a memento. For four Yankees, it was time to acknowledge what they had done together.
(Jack Curry, 10/23/09)

SUGAR LAND, Tex. — The legend of Jerry Hughes was first formed by juking defenders, breaking tackles and outrunning opponents.
(Thayer Evans, 10/24/09)

CARSON, Calif. — David Beckham has been hanged in effigy outside a London pub, has had his photograph printed with a bull's-eye around it in a British tabloid, and has endured visits to stadiums that roared with derogatory chants about his wife.
(Billy Witz, 7/21/09) 

In this next passage, see how quickly and graphically a simple verb sequence depicts a series of actions. What conciseness!

Every weekend during this fall marathon season, long after most runners have completed the 26.2-mile course — and very likely after many have showered, changed and headed for a meal — a group of stragglers crosses the finish line.
(Juliet Macur, 10/23/09)

Here, in three quick images — chrome, neon and over-easy eggs — the writer has us visualizing an entire diner.

Mr. Cammarano was a regular at the Malibu Diner, an always-open beacon of chrome, neon and over-easy eggs on the northern edge of this city of about 45,000. The diner figured in the criminal complaint against Mr. Cammarano.
(Nate Schweber, 7/26/09) 

Each of the next three passages contains a trio of phrases that begin with the same word.

Not long ago Dixie Redmond thought every tomato was red and round and hard as a baseball. But that was before she heard of heirloom tomatoes, before she met tomato people in cyberspace, before she dug up her backyard in Hampden, Me., to plant 21 varieties with names like Sun Gold and Aunt Ruby's German Green.
(Donna St. George, 8/20/97) 

WASHINGTON — There is no owner's manual for the Oval Office, no school to learn how to be a president. Perhaps most challenging for any new president is learning how powerful that megaphone really is. Every offhand word, every spontaneous remark, every comment informed more by emotion than calculation risks profound consequences.
(Peter Baker, 7/26/09) 

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A short midlevel cleric, with a neat white beard and a clergyman's calm bearing, Mehdi Karroubi has watched from his home in Tehran in recent months as his aides have been arrested, his offices raided, his newspaper shut down. He himself has been threatened with arrest and, indirectly, the death penalty.
(Michael Slackman, 10/23/09)

This passage contain two triplets.

The bitter divisions over an overhaul of the health care system have exploded at town-hall-style meetings over the last few days as members of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.
(Ian Urbina, 8/8/09)

And here? Not just a triplet, but a triplet with vivid verbs and alliteration. Thank you, Ms. Crouse.

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Professional golf's landscape is littered with dreams buried in bunkers, plunged into ponds and detoured by trees.
    (Karen Crouse, 3/9/09)

Sometimes a triplet consists of entire sentences, as in this snappy series (the woman was Hillary Rodham Clinton).

ABUJA, Nigeria — It was hot. She was tired. And it had been a long day in Africa.
(Jeffrey Gettleman, 8/13/09) 

And sometimes, a triplet can be entire paragraphs, as here in these opening paragraphs of an October 23, 2009 article by Greg Bishop that was headlined, "Dealing With Cancer, Jets Executive Finds A Balance by Running."

Cancer did not slow Matt Higgins. If anything, it affirmed the depth of his resolve. He took one day off for surgery and plunged back into work, crying only when he had to tell his bosses.

Cancer did not enlighten Higgins with fresh perspective. He treated it like another obstacle on his meteoric rise to becoming the Jets' executive vice president for business operations.

Cancer did not change Higgins. Running did.

As I mentioned earlier, triplets appear in profusion in The New York Times. Start your class with those here, then each day have one or more students check the daily Times, scanning whatever sections they wish, and sharing the triplets with the class. (It can be done online, but it's far quicker with the newspaper.) In no time, you will see triplets appearing in your students' writing.

So your students can apply what they've learned about writing triplets, here is one of the most effective and enjoyable writing assignments I ever gave to high school and college students.

In no more than 300 words, but no fewer than 250, describe what you did this morning, from the time you awoke (including how you were awakened) until you set foot in the school building. It can't be a morning in general; it's got to be this morning. Don't write an introduction; begin with the waking up. And don't have a conclusion; end with the moment you entered the building. From beginning to end the reader must be able to picture your activities, although you may include dialogue, thoughts and feelings. Be as detailed as you wish — the 250-word minimum is intended to encourage that — and at least twice in your story have a triplet consisting of three whole sentences, or three phrases, or three individual words. Make the reader see your morning with you in it. Give your story a title, but if you wish, use this one: "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."

("Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" is the title of a song written by Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and performed by him in the stage show — and later the movie — "This Is the Army," during the Second World War. Berlin, who wrote all the songs for the show, traveled around the country with the production as the show raised funds to fight the war, taking no salary and donating his royalties to the war effort. Here he is performing the song in the movie.)

I can almost promise that everyone in your class — including you — will enjoy hearing everyone else's graphic, lively and unique morning story. And why not contribute your own, as well? They'll love it.


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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 28th 2009, 7:04 AM
Comment by: James C. (Bloomington, IN)
The power of three is often useful in academic writing in devising titles, too. For example, "Darwin, Freud, and the Debate over Human Nature."
Wednesday October 28th 2009, 8:32 AM
Comment by: kathryn M. (San Diego, CA)
This article was delicious, magic, and illuminating!

I am not a writer, never think about it except when I love it or really don't, I will never read or write the same again!!

Too fun.

Thanks, KT
Wednesday October 28th 2009, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
The triplet also occurs in many fairy tales and fables (the three little pigs come quickly to mind, and Goldilocks and the three bears). Often in these triplets the first two are similar and establish the norm, and the third one deviates from it ("... but the third son was more quiet and serious, and loved to read", "Cinderella was not like her two step sisters ...", "but none of the men could ride the third horse; he was too fast, too strong and too wild." Sometimes the triplets are events: two rainy days and then a sunny day, two disappointments and then the wish comes true, two failures and then a success, hence the term "the third time's a charm - and "three strikes and you're out" (with the first two tries, there was still hope, but not after the third one). These sorts of stories teach us from childhood about the hope, surprise, and magic of "three".
Wednesday October 28th 2009, 4:45 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Book titles as well as academic titles capitalize on triplets: "Guns, Germs, and Steel"; "Power, Faith, and Fantasy"; "Love, Loss, and What I Wore"; "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things"; "Eat, Pray, Love"; "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral." Quartet titles, on the other hand, are rare.

In "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," Roy Peter Clark writes of the "'encompassing' magic of number three." In our culture, Clark writes, "three provides a sense of the whole: Beginning, middle, and end. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Moe, Larry, and Curly. Tinkers to Evers to Chance. A priest, a minister, and a rabbi. Executive, legislative, judicial. The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria."

[For more, see Nancy's Candlepower column, "Book Titles Made Easy." —Ed.]
Wednesday October 28th 2009, 5:45 PM
Comment by: Robert G.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your welcome comments. Prior to submitting my triplets column to the editor, I deleted three paragraphs about the number three, deciding to hold them off till another time. I guess that time is now. Here they are as written, with a few repetitions from Kristine and Nancy's comments:

Rhetorically, three is magic, and that Jefferson and Lincoln knew how to create that magic. We, all of us, certainly recognize that something within us seems to be affected by a series of three, whether read or spoken. Why three? Why not four? Or two? Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, said that three was the perfect number; perfect, he said, because it represents the beginning, the middle and the end. While the examples in this essay seem to support Pythagoras’s beginning, middle and end explanation, I’m wondering whether there’s an aesthetic appeal and an emotional resonance to three that touches the human psyche in a way beyond our knowing?

Three plays many major and minor roles in human culture, among them the Christian trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and the Hindu trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There are the three Graces of the ancient world, the three Fates, the Three Wise Men. There’s Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades, and there’s Neptune’s trident. There are the Three Tenors and the Three Stooges, the Three Bears and the Three Little Pigs, the Three Blind Mice and the Three Little Kittens who lost their mittens. There are the Three Musketeers and the Three R’s. There’s faith, hope and charity; id, ego and superego; love, honor and obey. There’s father, mother and child, past, present and future. Why all the threes?

I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, but knowing how steeped they are in myth and magic, I knew three had to play some role in them. So I asked Gabriel Leder, a 14-year-old Harry Potter devotee, of Washington, D.C., whether it did. In the series’ seventh and final book, The Deathly Hollows, he told me, there appear the three gifts of death: the elder wand, which has the power to keep anyone from killing you; the stone that can bring back the dead, and the invisibility cloak, which hides you from death.

Again, thanks for your comments.

Bob Greenman
Wednesday October 28th 2009, 10:36 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
Lazy speakers and unwilling listeners have a standard triplet used when articulation is beyond personal capability, or to describe the parts of conversations which were ignored: "blah, blah, blah"
Friday October 30th 2009, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent piece, informative, interesting, and intriguing. Three truly does have magic, one of the many ways writing is more mysterious and less rational than first appears.

Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was a master of three phrase groups, like this one:

…a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of emperors.

but he also went further to four phrase groups, like these:

[Hadrian] encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all the provinces in person.

The four give great inclusion but lack the magic of the three.
Friday October 30th 2009, 10:59 PM
Comment by: paulette W. (Auburn, CA)
...in the Bible three is used for emphasis... "a ruin, a ruin, a ruin"... "holy, holy, holy"... I just realized the use of three dots to show a pause in thought when writing...
Saturday October 31st 2009, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
A great column to stimulate serious thought. I grew up as the middle of three girls, so the three theme was inbred in me. The parts I found easiest to learn in the Bible were those mentioned earlier, Father, Son, and Holy Spirt; as well as faith, hope, and charity. I am sure there are many and I'll spend the rest of this lazy Saturday pulling them from my memory, making a list of them, and then rereading my current writing.

My big question is that my work as an older woman often includes the threesomes that I prefer but try to use but not abuse. Why have I been told by teachers and editors (not very credentialed ones) NOT use too many phrases or sentences in triplet. Thank you for supporting my point of view, for writing it down for others to read, and for giving me permission to write in my own style.

My Writers Group will hear about this! Marian
Saturday October 31st 2009, 9:56 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think it's more than the 'three'. It's the power of parallel construction, too.

Great article.
Saturday November 7th 2009, 7:05 AM
Comment by: Ellis D. (London United Kingdom)
This is, of course, very true but do not forget the two other magical odd numbers:


FIVE- brings good luck and wards away evil, is very popular in the Middle East where the 'Hand' amulet is widely used. The Arabs often say "five be upon you" to ward away the Evil Eye.

SEVEN- Dance of the Seven Veils, Seven Deadly sins, Seven Blessings (Sheva Brochas), Seven Years Bad Luck, Seven days of the week (the French Revolution tried unsuccessfully to change the week to ten days.

It is indeed possible that our brains are hard-wired to odd numbers but I do not know of any animal experiments to test it out in other species.

ONE- the One and Only, the Singularity etc.
Saturday November 7th 2009, 11:20 AM
Comment by: James T M.
Forget not the significant notes of the musical scale: first, third, fifth, and seventh. The second and fourth sort of hang around most of the time.
Thursday December 3rd 2009, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)Top 10 Commenter
One other great triplet, as yet not mentioned, though we all are under the spell of this imperative, one way or another, all the time:
“Learn, Learn, Learn”
Monday December 28th 2009, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Denver, CO)
Three is very significant in music. From the standpoint of chords, it is the third that is the biggest determinent in the sound of the chords. Change from major seventh to minor seventh, and the change is subtle. Change the third and the change is drastic. It is the third that separates a major from a minor. And you use thirds to build larger chords. Start with a major third, you set the stage for any other notes that you place on top of it. If you then add a minor third to the previous two notes (first and third) you come to the fifth note in the scale that your chord is built from. These three notes, first, third and fifth, form your fundamental chords. So again we find three. Not only is three fundamental in the 'tone' of the chord, it is with three that you build your fundamental chords, and three notes make up a fundamental chord.

As others have stated, there are other significant numbers to be found. And so it is in music. The root, the essential determiner for a scale. The third, the primary determinant for a chord. The fifth, the note that works well with just about anything. Speaking of five, the minor pentatonic scale seems to be ingrained in the Human mind. If you go the World Science Festival website and check out the video entitled "The power of the pentatonic scale" you will see what I mean.

So I suppose this raises the question, why are certain numbers 'hardwired' into the mind?


James - Does the 'T' stand for 'Tiberius', because that would be awesome.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 2:27 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
Sometimes the magic of Three is called into action indirectly, as with the proposed film "A Letter to Four Wives." Upon submitting the adapted screenplay to 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, Joseph L. Mankiewicz mentioned that he found it too long and asked how he felt the movie could be shortened. "Take out one of the wives," practical Zanuck replied. Thus, "A Letter to THREE Wives" became Oscar's Best Picture for 1950.
Thursday February 11th 2010, 6:21 AM
Comment by: Heather B. (Tampa, FL)
I have a problem with threes.

That is, I'll often explain a thought by offering two perfect examples, and then stall out while trying to think of a third. Why? So I can have a third. Even if it doesn't quite work.

I've been trying to teach myself that stopping at two can be fine. Really. Truly.

Oh, and by the way, it works best when the third and final example is the one with the most impact.
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 12:03 AM
Comment by: Caleb C. (Woodlands Singapore)
Since becoming a member, I have been reading your featured articles.I find them interesting and enlightening. I wonder if you could provide a printable version for them or an icon for the printable version instead.



Lots of thanks


Caleb Cheong
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 10:19 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Caleb, until that becomes available to us, how about copying the articles you want onto Word (or something equivalent) and printing that out? Watch for copyright, however. That may be why the facility isn't here. Many of the articles are from other sources. For my own use, I have sometimes made a word document, but I've not printed out anything, just stored and referenced it carefully.
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Caleb and Jane: You can print articles directly from your browser, and the printed version will be clean (no sidebar or comments). Give it a try.
Tuesday March 23rd 2010, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Robert G.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Caleb, thank you for your good words about my articles and for your inquiry about printing them out. It's wonderful to know that readers like you, halfway around the world from me, are enjoying them. And thank you Jane and Ben for your suggestions to Caleb. Bob Greenman
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Great article!
Monday March 19th 2012, 12:57 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
"I came, I saw, I conquered."

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you!

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