Rule of Three

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Feb 9 14:36:35 UTC 2004

At 6:08 PM -0800 2/8/04, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:
>a commentator on NPR's Sunday Morning Edition today (2/8/04) claimed
>that the three most important (electoral) issues in michigan are:
>"Jobs, jobs, jobs."
>this is (i think) a play on the real estate cliche that the three most
>important considerations in buying a house are: "Location, location,
>location".  location-location-location itself has been extended to a
>great many domains besides real estate; to appreciate this, google on
>"location location location" and sample some of the roughly 218,000
>sites listed.
>in any case, there's a formula here:
>   The three most important Xs in Y are: Z, Z, Z.
>(conveying something like 'the only really important X in Y is Z').
>i've been calling this, in my own  mind, the Rule of Three, but perhaps
>somone has studied it already, and given it a name?  has anyone
>assembled some collection of instances of the formula?  (they are all
>over the place.)  has anyone looked at the history?  (is
>location-location-location in the real estate domain the earliest
>exemplar in english?  in any case, what's the earliest citation for an
I was collecting these for a while, in connection with my more
systematic exploration of the Lexical Clone construction (a.k.a.
Doubles, Contrastive Focus Reduplication), as in "No, what I wanted
was a {dog dog/salad salad}" or "We're not LIVing together living
together".  My hypothesis was that the emphatic triple (= 'and
nothing else matters') emerged for this function (and I did have a
bunch of others, but they didn't reveal anything earthshattering)
because the double was pre-empted for the modificational use.  Of
course, whenever I presented anything on those triples, someone would
quote the line from the Lewis Carroll epic poem, The Hunting of the
Snark: "What I tell you three times is true".   A quick web search
indicates that you wouldn't be the first to refer to this pattern as
"The Rule of Three".  I don't know of any systematic research, though.


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