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.
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.