Rule of Three--(in Crime and Punishment)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Feb 9 17:43:45 UTC 2004

On Feb 9, 2004, at 8:09 AM, David Bergdahl wrote:

> ...Karl Menniger's Number Words and Number Symbols is a good source
> for the
> linguistics of numbers.  Menniger reminds us of the three-ness of
> "tribal"
> and "drill' (a cloth), "tribute" and "testament." Apparently there was
> an
> arithmetic "rule of three" in mid-15thC ... so we may need to go
> further
> back to find the basis of "practice, practice, practice."

this discussion, interesting though it is, has veered significantly
from my original query.  (i know, e-discussions are like that.)  i have
no doubt that a special regard for the number 3 influenced the way the
originator(s) of "location location location" framed this emphatic
utterance, but the fact is that it did become a formula, which was then
extended to other contexts than real estate and to utterances using
expressions other than the word "location".  the formula/figure/trope
has a life of its own, as a convention of language use, and that life
was what i was inquiring about.

it's much the same with syntactic constructions: aspects of a
construction often "make sense" from a semantic or pragmatic point of
view (more and more sense as we get back to the historical origins of
the construction), but from the point of view of the speaker of the
language they are simply the conventional ingredients of the
construction.  it makes sense that the english passive uses the
auxiliary verb BE in combination with a past participle, but  now those
are just aspects of form that are paired with a particular meaning (a
meaning that is distinct from the meaning of the predicate adjectival
construction that served as the historical source for the passive).
similarly, it makes sense that some languages use the subjunctive mood
for imperative sentences, but speakers of such languages aren't
creatively using the subjunctive to convey a suggestion; they're just
taking the subjunctive off the shelf, so to speak, for this purpose.

(the processes -- or, perhaps, process -- of grammaticalization of
syntactic form and conventionalization of figures are certainly
interesting in their own right, and in fact i am very much interested
in both, but they're not what i was asking about.)

arnold (zwicky at

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