“Omne trium perfectum” — Latin for “Everything that comes in threes is perfect.”
Every day, we eat three square meals. We have three unalienable rights and three iPhone storage options. In fact, much of our lives is brought to us by the number three. But how can one lonesome little number carry so much weight? Whether we realize it or not, this tiny number has made a huge impact on our collective psyche, influencing the ways we remember, experience, and frame nearly everything. And there are ways to incorporate it into your life so you can write more effectively, deliver speeches that stick, and remember more. Let’s take a look how.
But first, here are a few examples that are emblazoned in our memories:
- Veni, vidi, vici
- Three strikes in baseball
- Traditional joke setup: “Three people walk into a bar…”
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
- “Location, location, location”
- Newton’s three laws of motion
There’s only one way to explain why we like trios so much — in threes.
“I have said it twice: That alone should encourage the crew. I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.” — Lewis Carroll
1. It sticks
Our brains are programmed to think in patterns. And three is the smallest number needed to create one. Think about it: you only need a third item to reveal the relationship between the first and second. We’re so drawn to patterns because it’s how we can make things cling to our memories. Cognitive psychologist Nelson Cowan of the University of Missouri found that our short-term memory can only juggle between three to five pieces of information at a time. But Cowan says that only by “assigning items meaning, and collecting them into larger chunks,” are we able to raise that information cap. That’s why when we’re trying to remember a phone number, we clump the numbers together in groups. Three is what makes us remember.
2. It creates a story
Our love of trios also comes from a classic element of writing and rhetoric: the rule of three. When we cluster items in groups of three, it adds depth and intrigue. It creates a complete arc. In other words, it establishes a story. In Building Great Sentences, author Brooks Landon says three-part sentences are a powerful way for writers to establish “a kind of unity, progression, or intensification.” The different sections symbolize progress, and “remind us to expand our view of the future.”
Three has so many story-like qualities because it also lives inside the typical three-act story structure. A beginning, middle, and end gives storytellers enough room to establish a situation, develop characters and issues, and then resolve the built-up tension. This structure is laced throughout stories in literature, film, and comedy. For example, when you’re telling a joke, you have to set it up first. Only then can you build up the anticipation so you can reveal the punchline. Stories are stories because of three, and whenever the number is used, miniature stories echo within.
3. It’s rhythmic
Successful writing sounds like music. And three provides a framework to make that rhyhm come alive. This is especially prevalent in advertising. Mark Forsyth of The New York Times writes that the rule of three, and other “little tricks [of rhetoric] that don’t change the meaning of a sentence, but make it more memorable” is what has inspired many of the slogans we know and love: “Just do it.” “Where’s the beef?” “Snap, crackle, pop.” These slogans are catchy because they’re succinct yet still melodic. And this extends to full-blown sentences as well. Forsyth says that Shakespeare’s three-part sentence structure “lives on in eBay’s ‘Buy it. Sell it. Love it.’ and in Fisher Price’s ‘Play. Laugh. Grow.’” A solid tempo is one of the cornerstones of great speaking and writing, and according to Landon, that “drumlike beat” is why we connect so well with certain phrases.
Three is not just a number — it’s a philosophy. It’s a way of thinking that emphasizes the importance of brevity, beauty, and telling stories in memorable ways. And every time we are moved, use, or remember something because of it, the number gets even more inscribed in our daily lives. Who rule the world? The lovely number three.