A Vacational Tricolon (October 2021)

This morning I’d like to talk to you about not being distracted – but before we get to that I have a tricolon for you. I’m fond of the tricolon, the rule of three, the heaping up of ideas in triplicate and I’d like to spend a little time sharing this enthusiasm with you. The tricolon takes advantage of the magic of the number three. The pattern of two is boring – a straight line can be drawn through any two points – but a third lets you do something interesting. You can continue the pattern, turn it up a notch, or even subvert it. I came, I saw, said Julius Caesar – so much might be echoed by any tourist in St Margaret’s church – but then I conquered, and suddenly the victorious general steps into view. Lies, damned lies – we’re clearly being set up to be unimpressed by falsehood – and statistics gives us the wry smile, it makes the point. You can’t get the same payoff from two because you’ve not had time to set up the pattern, but three is glorious.

The word tricolon comes from the Greek for three limbs, just as tripod is a thing with three feet, triops is a curious creature with three eyes, and the triceratops has three horns on its face. The triceratops is the coolest of dinosaurs – whilst the tyrannosaurus rex is eating, the velociraptor ingeniously opening a window, and the stegosaurus just walking dully along, the triceratops is cruising – it can’t stop, won’t stop moving; it’s like it’s got this music in its mind saying it’s going to be alright. It’s possible that I’ve confused the triceratops and Taylor Swift, so let us move, cruise from the tri to the colon.

In Greek, the meaning of the word “colon” shifted from limb to part of a sentence and in English we now use it for one of the pieces of punctuation that separate out clauses, parts of a sentence. I’m a punctuation junkie – as you might have noticed if you ever consume your assemblies via the scripts we save to the student portal. From here, as a spoken piece, the punctuation is less noticeable, but it’s still there. It may be invisible but it is, if anything, more important to a listener than to a reader. In his novel “In the search for lost time”, Marcel Proust might be able to get away with a sentence that goes on for four metres, but when spoken aloud the point quickly gets lost without a good set of punctuation.

I quote “A sofa that had risen up from dreamland between a pair of new and thoroughly substantial armchairs, little chairs upholstered in pink silk, the brocaded covering of a card table raised to the dignity of a person since, like a person, it had a past, a memory, retaining in the chill and gloom of the Quai Conti the tan of its sun-warming through the windows of the …”

It goes on. Punctuation clarifies meaning – as Lynne Truss explained in her delightful book based on the joke about the panda who went into a café and ordered a full English breakfast. The waitress was a little surprised but served him and, when he’d finished mopping up the beans with the last piece of fried bread, brought over his bill. She was even more surprised when, instead of paying it, he pulled out a revolver, fired six times into the ceiling and lumbered out. Bravely, she called after him “Hey, you can’t do that!” “I think you’ll find I can,” he replied, throwing a book back at her. It was a nature encyclopaedia, and on the page for panda she saw this description “Species of bear native to China, colon, eats comma shoots and leaves”.

That comma plays a key role in the sentence about the panda – without it the encyclopaedia would harmlessly describe its diet: it simply eats both shoots and leaves; with it, the animal is turned into an antisocial and potentially violent diner who eats, then shoots, then leaves. Commas are useful, they can break up sentences, but they are limited, they don’t provide much structure and if you rely on them you end up in an endless Proustian dream world. Full stops are more concrete: they mark off statements complete with subject, verb and object. Dog eats dog. Fish rides bicycle. Statistics mislead the public. Caesar conquers Gaul. They are, however, a little heavy – they don’t leave much scope for the imagination: there’s not much nuance with a full stop.

A semi-colon is quite the opposite: it is a sly forger of loose allegiances; it sits between two potential sentences and waggles its eyebrows suggestively, encouraging you to make links. Whilst the comma should never separate independent clauses (phrases that could stand alone as sentences), the semi-colon can do the job, stringing you along without ever completing the thought. A colon, finally, is a mathematician’s punctuation mark – it joins two independent clauses with a hidden implication. It says A therefore B and you should immediately be suspicious (as, in fact, you should be whenever you hear the word therefore or meet a mathematician). A colon lets you know that you are in the midst of a piece of logic, that the writer is trying to lead you from one thought to another, to persuade you that the second thought is a consequence of the first. This gives me an opportunity to invite you to enter the half-termly essay competition. I’d like you to write what change you would make to law if you were in government and what impact you hope it would have. Decide what you would like to do and then convince me that it would make the right difference. You have a maximum of a thousand words – which is about as many as I’ve spoken so far this morning – including the title and not including your name. I won’t read any that go over the word count. Submissions emailed to me by 9am on the Monday we come back from vacation please. The winner will get a book token and a badge to mark their scholarship.

Politics is a place for rhetorical eloquence and therefore a place for the tricolon: a wonderful example comes from Toby Ziegler, the fictitious White House director of communications in the brilliantly written West Wing. This is him explaining the benefits of Free Trade.

“Food is cheaper; clothes are cheaper; steel is cheaper; cars are cheaper; phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s because I’m a speech writer – I know how to make a point. It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with lowers and raises there? It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites, and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And that’s it.”

In a great tricolon the last one is not like the others, maybe the first two rhyme: Ready Steady Go; maybe they alliterate: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; maybe they are opposites: the good, the bad and the ugly; and maybe the last one is just a bit longer as in Superman’s Truth, Justice and the American Way. I’ve already given you one task for the vacation – now let me give you three more, a vacational tricolon. We don’t talk about holiday – we don’t want you to think of this as time off: it’s more than that, it’s time out; it’s time out of school, time out of the routine, time to take time to do something different. Your vacation time should be used to Read, Rest and Review. That’s our tricolon, and you’ll have noticed that we don’t have one that’s different – they even all begin with R. There’s a reason for this – obviously, I wouldn’t have led you here without a reason. The reason is that none of the three is more important than the others – we want you to treat them all exactly the same: we want you to devote the same amount of time to resting as you do to reading; we want you to do as much reading – of novels, of newspapers, of whatever takes your fancy – as you do reviewing (by which we mean primarily completing those tasks you planned out in your responses); and we want you to do as much reviewing as you do resting, sleeping, socialising.

Read, rest, review in equal measure – don’t let any one of those distract you from the other two.