Tri Colonic (Not High Colonic)

by Rhetorix - February 11th, 2001

This is a test of the Rhetorical Recognition System. See if you can spot the device used in all of the following quotations (a bonus for finding three kindred devices in the examples):

"I want to stop gun violence, to reinvigorate the war on drugs, to end discrimination wherever I find it." (Attorney General John Ashcroft)

"Every gun that is fired, 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." (President Dwight D. Eisenhower)

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow, this ground -- The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. (President Abraham Lincoln)

May those generations whose faces we cannot yet see, whose names we may never know, say of us here that we led our beloved land into a new century with the American Dream alive for all her children; with the American promise of a more perfect union a reality for all her people; with America's bright flame of freedom spreading throughout all the world. (President William J. Clinton)

Those of you who began to sing "Three of these things belong together" will get partial credit, for the rhetorical device common to the above quotations is tricolon.

Tricolon is from the Greek for "having three members." Tricolonic phrases have three parts, all of which are related to the subject at hand. It is found in many styles of prose and lends itself especially well to speeches. There is something felicitous in the rhythms of a neatly formed tricolon, which may be why Pres. Lincoln's sentence struck its audience so forcefully at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg and sticks so tenaciously in our memories today.

Traditional tricolon builds from the first through the third, either in impact or length-preferably both. Tricolon cresens is the name for a tricolonic phrase which sections grow progressively longer. Attorney General Ashcroft's sentence follows this format; each succeeding phrase is longer than the one before it.

The emotional impact of those phrases, however, does not build to a dramatic conclusion-his three examples do not vary much in fearfulness or threat. Pres. Clinton's statement is an better example of expanding scope. He takes the American Dream to the children, then to the people, then to the world. The prose is not elegant-proximity with the sentences of his peers makes his prolix sentence all the more grating-but the thrust of the ideas contained in it does build to a climax.

Pres. Eisenhower's statement breaks this mold. A gun is smaller and less lethal than a warship or a rocket, but the flow falters between the warship and the rocket. A plot of the size of the impact does not produce a rising line, but a bell-shaped curve.

The length of Pres. Clinton's phrases also charts a bell curve-the middle section is the longest. Although I have no research to back this opinion, I think that this format may draw from the English sentence structure. English places the verb in the center of the sentence while Latin and Greek were more likely to have the verb at the end of the sentence. Roman and Greek listeners and readers expected the punch of the sentence at its end; we expect it in the middle.

Now, for the bonus question:

President Eisenhower ends his sentence with parallelism, the use of the same pattern in successive clauses. Both he and President Lincoln use anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clauses. Buried in President Clinton's prose is polyptoton, the repeated use of the same word in different forms.

More on these in my next column.

W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

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