Isocolon: Definition and Examples for Writers
by Liz Bureman | 39 comments
I remember one of my teachers at one point in my schooling mentioning that there is a balance between the good days and the bad days you’ll get. The exact phrasing used to express this idea was “Some days you get the elevator, some days you get the shaft.” Morbid, perhaps, but it’s a saying that has stuck with me since then. I really like similarly structured euphemisms and turns of phrase, and I just learned the name for them: isocolon.
The saying, “Veni, Vidi, Vici; I came, I saw, I Conquered,” is one of the most famous isocolons.
Definition of Isocolon
An isocolon is a rhetorical device that comes from the Greek “isos”, meaning equal, and “kolon”, meaning member or clause.
An isocolon is a sentence or series of sentences composed of two or more phrases of similar structure and length.
The most famous isocolon is probably that triad of Latin words attributed to Julius Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.
Fun fact: the plural of isocolon can be either isocolons or isocola.
3 Types of Isocola, with Famous Examples
There are three subsets of isocola, depending on the number of phrases in the isocolon.
If an isocolon is split into two phrases, then that’s known as a bicolon. For example, in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, Orual makes the observation, “Nothing that’s beautiful hides its face. Nothing that’s honest hides its name.” The book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible is full of bicola, in which the second line of poetry mimics the first in structure. JFK used this as well when he famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
If a third phrase comes to the party, it’s known as a tricolon. These have made their appearance in several significant historical speeches, such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he stated that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Winston Churchill also used this in his comments regarding the Battle of Britain when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
And when there’s a fourth phrase joining in, you have what’s known as a tetracolon. Many of Shakespeare’s plays make use of the tetracolon, and since the rhythm is pleasing to the human ear, political figures have made use of it in their speeches as well, including Lincoln in his aforementioned Gettysburg Address.
Why bother with isocola?
There is something appealing to the rhythms established by isocola, both visually and aurally. Additionally, the parallels created by the isocola, both in content and in structure, add a smoothness to the written word.
Obviously, every other sentence does not need to be written as an isocolon, because the language then becomes forced instead of fluid, but looking for opportunities to use isocola could very well enhance your writing, and maybe even reduce your word count in the editing stages.
What’s your favorite isocolon?
Write for fifteen minutes, using as many isocola as you can. Mix in the three subtypes: bicolon, tricolon, and tetracolon, and try to use one of each. Post your practice in the comments and check out the work of your fellow writers.
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Definition of Isocolon
An isocolon is a figure of speech in which there are two or more parts of a sentence that are identical in length, rhythm , and structure. One of the most common isocolon examples in English is the merchandising slogan “Buy one, get one.” In this sentence, “buy one” and “get one” are considered two cola (i.e., a distinct part that is grammatically complete, yet not logically complete by itself) which have equivalent length and rhythm, with the same grammatical structure. The definition of isocolon can be further broken into categories depending on the number of equivalent cola: bicolon, tricolon, or tetracolon for two, three, or four cola, respectively.
The word isocolon comes from the Greek words ἴσος (ísos), meaning “equal,” and κῶλον (kôlon), meaning “member” or “clause.”
Common Examples of Isocolon
Besides the very common bicolon “buy one, get one,” perhaps the most famous example of isocolon is Julius Caesar’s quotes “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). This is an example of a tricolon. There are a few other common phrases which are examples of iscolon of varying lengths, such as the following:
- Rank and file
- Signed, sealed, delivered
- Finders, keepers; losers, weepers
- The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Some famous advertising slogans and lines from movies contain isocolon examples, such as the following:
- “It takes a licking, but it keeps on ticking!”—Timex
- “Eat Healthy. Think Better.”—Britannia
- “Food, folks and fun.”—McDonald’s
- “Grande taste. Loco value.”—Taco Bell
- “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face.”—Carl’s Jr.
- “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.”—Maybelline
- “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”—M&Ms
- “More saving. More doing.”—Home Depot
- “You’ve got a lot to live, and Pepsi’s got a lot to give.”—Pepsi
Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hatred; hatred leads to conflict ; conflict leads to suffering.
- —Yoda, Star Wars, Episode I (Note: this is also an example of anadiplosis )
There are also many famous speeches which contain examples of isocolon. Here are some examples:
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
—Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
—Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.
—Winston Churchill, August 20, 1940
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
—John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 (Note: this is also an example of antimetabole )
Significance of Isocolon in Literature
Isocolon creates a strong sense of symmetry and unity whether it is used in rhetoric or in literature. Isocolon leads to very memorable lines because generally there is a good deal of rhythm through the repetition of structures. Thus, it is no wonder, as we saw above, that advertisers love to use isocolon in company slogans. There is also much overlap between isocolon and other figures of speech that include repetition, such as anaphora , antimetabole, chiasmus , anadiplosis, parallelism , antithesis , and so on. Many of these more specific figures of speech are also examples of isocolon since isocolon is a broader concept.
Examples of Isocolon in Literature
KING RICHARD II: What must the king do now? must he submit?
The king shall do it: must he be deposed?
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave.
(Richard II by William Shakespeare)
Though this excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Richard II is often cut down to just four lines (“I’ll give my jewels…” to “dish of wood”) to make it appear a tetracolon, it is, in fact, a much longer isocolon even than that. King Richard II enumerates the many different things he would trade in for simpler options were he to abdicate, making this also an example of accumulation . The isocolon here is not just aesthetically pleasing, but also shows the way the King Richard II considers his livelihood and laments the situation he is now in.
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
(“The Tyger” by William Blake)
William Blake’s short poem “The Tyger” contains this stanza which has two key examples of isocolon, both bicolons: “What the hammer? what the chain,” and “what the anvil? what dread grasp.” Both of these lines function not only to repeat the structure, length, and rhythm, but also contextually. The “hammer” and “chain” are very similar semantically, just as “anvil” and “dread grasp” are. The rhythmic quality of the stanza creates a chant-like sense in the poem, and also speeds up the pace of the poem overall. This particular stanza explains how the fearful “tyger” in question was formed.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….
(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)
The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities puts a number of literary devices on display. The most obvious thing is the juxtaposition of two opposites in a parallel structure. Thus, each small section functions as a bicolon, or, indeed, the entire paragraph can be considered one long isocolon with numerous cola that have very similar structures.
Test Your Knowledge of Isocolon
1. Which of the following statements is the correct isocolon definition?
A. A clause which has exactly two equal parts in rhythm and length.
B. A sentence in which the first half is repeated in reverse order in the second half.
C. A figure of speech in which two or more parts of a sentence are identical in length and structure.
|Answer to Question #1||Show>|
2. Which of the following advertising slogans is an example of isocolon?
A. “You got peanut butter in my chocolate! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!”—Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
B. “When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight.”—Federal Express
C. “Thousands of possibilities. Get yours.”—Best Buy
|Answer to Question #2||Show>|
3. Which of the following quotes from Abraham Lincoln contains an example of isocolon?
A. America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
B. That government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
C. Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
|Answer to Question #3||Show>|
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Isocolon is a rhetorical scheme in which parallel elements possess the same number of words or syllables. As is any form of parallelism, the pairs or series must enumerate like things to achieve symmetry.  The scheme is called bicolon, tricolon, or tetracolon depending on whether they are two, three, or four parallel elements. 
A well-known example of tricolon is Julius Caesar ‘s “ Veni, vidi, vici ” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). 
The term is derived from the Greek ἴσος (ísos), “equal” and κῶλον (kôlon), “member, clause”. The plural is ‘-cola’ but in English may also be ‘-colons’.[ citation needed ]
- 1 Bicolon
- 2 Tricolon
- 3 Tetracolon
- 4 Special cases
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 6.1 Citations
- 6.2 Sources
Bicolon[ edit ]
An example of bicolon is the advertising slogan “buy one, get one free” (you pay for one item but you get another free). 
In Biblical poetry it is standard to see a pair of adjacent lines of poetry in which the second echoes the meaning of the first.  This can be considered a bicolon.  [ need quotation to verify ] For example:
- When Israel went out of Egypt, * the house of Jacob from a barbarous people:
- Judea made his sanctuary, * Israel his dominion.
- The sea saw and fled: * Jordan was turned back.
- The mountains skipped like rams, * and the hills like the lambs of the flock.
- What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou didst flee: * and thou, O Jordan, that thou wast turned back?
- Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams, * and ye hills, like lambs of the flock?
- At the presence of the Lord the earth was moved, * at the presence of the God of Jacob:
- Who turned the rock into pools of water, * and the stony hill into fountains of waters.
- — Psalm 113:1-8 (Psalm 114 Hebrew)
Tricolon[ edit ]
- Veni, vidi, vici
- — ( Julius Caesar )
- “I came; I saw; I conquered.” 
- Nec tē noster amor nec tē data dextera quondam
- nec moritūra tenet crūdēlī fūnere Dīdō?
- — Aeneid Book IV by Virgil
- “Does our love not hold you, nor does my right hand having been given hold you, nor does Dido about to die with a cruel death hold you?”
- …or the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates , which I call by the general name, property.
- — John Locke , 1689, Two Treatises of Government , Second Treatise, §123
A tricolon that comprises parts in increasing size, magnitude or intensity is called a tricolon crescens, or an ascending tricolon.  Tricolon can sometimes be a hendiatris .
Similarly, tricolon that comprises parts that decrease in size, magnitude, intensity, or word length is called a tricolon diminuens, or a descending tricolon.
Abraham Lincoln used tricola in many of his speeches.[ citation needed ] His Gettysburg Address has the following phrase: “We cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow…” Lincoln wrote in his second inaugural address , “with malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right…”, which became the most famous expression in the speech. Winston Churchill also used the device frequently, perhaps most famously in August 1940 when referring to the Battle of Britain with the line “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” In this instance, a frequent literary device of making the third colon stand apart in meaning from the other two for emphasis is employed (much/many/few).
Repeating the same thing multiple times is a special case of an isocolon, as a way of saying that only one thing is important, and it is very important. In about 1500, when Louis XII asked Giangiacopo Trivulzio what was necessary to win the war against Ludovico Sforza , Trivulzio answered: “Three things, Sire, Money, money, money!”  In the 20th century, the cliché “Location, location, location” was said to enumerate the three most important attributes of real property. This phrase appears in print in Chicago as early as 1926,  but is nonetheless frequently credited, incorrectly, to the British real estate magnate Lord Harold Samuel .   British Prime Minister Tony Blair set out his priorities for office in 1997 with “Education, Education, Education”.
Tetracolon[ edit ]
Tetracola are sometimes called “quatrains” (cf. the usual meaning of quatrain ). 
An example is Gabriele D’Annunzio : 
Era calcina grossa, e poi era terra cotta, e poi pareva bronzo, e ora è cosa viva.
It was raw mortar, and then it was terra cotta, and then it looked like bronze, and now it is a living thing
Special cases[ edit ]
A bicolon that is both short and so well known that it becomes a fixed expression is a special type of collocation known as a Siamese twin . Not all linguistic Siamese twins are bicolons or tricolons, however. Siamese twins generally consist of only a few words at most.
Examples of Siamese twins that are bicolons or tricolons:
- smoke and mirrors
- alive and kicking
- cloak and dagger
- command and control
- each and every
- part and parcel
- lie, cheat, or steal
- name it and claim it
- rank and file
- signed, sealed, and delivered
- finders, keepers; losers, weepers
- carpe diem, carpe noctem, carpe vitam
- in vino veritas, in aqua sanitas
- brain and brawn
- meat and potatoes
- rape and pillage
- divide and conquer
- tall, dark and handsome
- pins and needles
- brains and beauty
- might and magic
- rock and roll
Examples of Siamese twins that are not bicolons or tricolons:
- lost and found
- between the devil and the deep blue sea
- between a rock and a hard place
- double trouble (a verb and noun)
- high crimes and misdemeanors
- over and done with
- Skull and crossbones
- sugar and spice and everything nice
See also[ edit ]
- Figure of speech
- Rule of three (writing)
- Triad (disambiguation)
References[ edit ]
Citations[ edit ]
- ^ Corbett and Connors, 1999. p. 45
- ^ a b c Dizionario di retorica e stilistica, UTET, Toino, 2004.
- ^ Forsyth, 2014. p. 98
- ^ a b c Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, Dictionary of the Old Testament: wisdom, poetry & writings 3, p. 520
- ^ Forsyth, 2014. p. 98
- ^ Latina ad Vitam: Poetry Device of the Day: Tricolon Crescens
- ^ John Aikin, William Johnston, General Biography, 1814, p. 477
- ^ On Language: Location, Location, Location Safire, William; 26 June 2009.
- ^ Brodie, Sophie (14 November 2007). “It’s location, location, location for Land Secs” . The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 11 May 2010.
- ^ William Safire , “On Language”, New York Times Magazine, June 26, 2009 [full text https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/magazine/28FOB-onlanguage-t.html ]
Sources[ edit ]
- Baldrick, Chris . 2008. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press. New York. ISBN 978-0-19-920827-2
- Corbett, Edward P. J. and Connors, Robert J. 1999. Style and Statement. Oxford University Press. New York, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-511543-0
- Kennedy, X.J. et al. 2006. The Longman Dictionary of Literary Terms: Vocabulary for the Informed Reader. Pearson, Longman. New York. ISBN 0-321-33194-X
- Forsyth, Mark . 2014. The Elements of Eloquence. Berkley Publishing Group/Penguin Publishing. New York. ISBN 978-0-425-27618-1
- Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0 .
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