The Superfluity of the Magic Three

I have complained for years at the overuse and the misuse and the abuse of the list of/magic 3, which is essentially a rhetorical device used in formal speech, exemplified both in famous literary examples like those from Shakespeare, and in famous speeches like one from Ronald Reagan [well, he didn’t write it]. And we could imagine, for further elucidation, a worst-case scenario if, for example, Donald Trump decided to write his own approximation:

Believe me it’s really tremendously bad; believe me it’s so wrong and sick; believe me it’s so not true and unfair….

Yet that would in some respects be following a ‘correct’ patterning…

My opening sentence flirts with the notion of using the list of 3, and is acceptable as a near thing, but one of my pet complaints has been when teachers instruct their students that using three adjectives in a sentence constitutes the use of such. It doesn’t. And I have seen many of these overwrought sentences produced in examination responses and other student writing.

I addressed this in a couple of units in my co-authored book Writing Workshops, cautioning against the erroneous adjectival approach, but also exploring its correct, rhetorical use in speech and formal writing. This latter wasn’t purely to advise how students might use in their own writing, though there are occasions when they should think about applying – for the right impact and effect – but also in recognising and being able to analyse its use elsewhere, both historically and presently.

As ever, I am often prompted by contemporary events to write these blog-asides, and today it was Theresa May’s bungled attempt at the use of the list of 3 in her speech to the Conservative Spring Forum, speaking about Nicola Sturgeon’s proposed new independence referendum. May pulled this threesome out of the trite speaker’s bag, stating Scottish independence

…would be bad for Scotland, bad for the United Kingdom, and bad for us all.

So, what’s wrong with it? It has the intended rhythmic cadence for some impact, and it repeats and thus focuses on its intended criticism through use of the word bad, but the third segment is utterly meaningless, surely? Who else is the ‘us all’ of the sentence? Does she mean the whole world? Does she mean other galaxies?

It is the use of the list of 3 for the sake of it. Not for meaning. It is superfluous.

I know. This is hopelessly pedantic in so many ways. But it is now out of my system, out of my anger, and now out of my need – until the next time.

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