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The Three Bears that Goldilocks meets

The rule of three is a principle in English writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader/audience to this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of three's. From slogans ("Go, fight, win!") to films, many things are structured in threes. There were three musketeers, three little pigs, three billy goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the three bears, and Three Stooges.

A series of three is often used to create a progression in which the tension is created, then built up, and finally released. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped together in threes in order to emphasize an idea.



In comedy, it is suggested that maximum humor can be attained by creating a structure in which a joke is set up, the setup is reinforced, and the punchline breaks the pattern.

  • How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.
  • I know three French words: Bonjour, merci, and surrender.

The generic three-panel daily comic strip reinforces this principle, as does the "Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman" joke. The rule of three in comedy also reflects a principle of pattern recognition because a set of three elements has the smallest number of elements that can establish and violate a pattern.


In storytelling in general, authors often create triplets or structures in three parts. In its simplest form, this is merely beginning, middle, and end, from Aristotle's Poetics. Syd Field wrote a popular handbook of screenwriting, in which he touted the advantages of three act structure over more traditional five act structure used by William Shakespeare and many others.

Snow White receives three visits from her wicked stepmother

Vladimir Propp, in his Morphology of the Folk Tale, concluded that any of the elements in a folk tale could be negated twice, so that it would repeat three times.[1] This is common not only in the Russian tales he studied, but throughout folk tales and fairy tales—most commonly, perhaps, in that the youngest son is often the third, but fairy tales often display the rule of three in the most blatant form, a small sample of which include

  • Jack and the Beanstalk has Jack climb the beanstalk three times.
  • The wicked stepmother visits Snow White in the forest three times before she finally causes her to fall dead
  • Rumpelstiltskin spins three times for the heroine and lets her guess his name three times and days.
  • The hero of The Twelve Dancing Princesses follows them to their ball three times
  • In East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the heroine receives three gifts while she is searching for her lost husband; when she finds where he is prisoner, she must use them to three times bribe her way to the hero (the first two times she was unable to tell her story because he lay in a drugged sleep).
  • In Cinderella and many of its variants, such as Cap O' Rushes, The Wonderful Birch, and Catskin, the heroine goes to the ball (or other event) three times
  • In The Rose-Tree and The Juniper Tree, the dead child, transformed into a bird, receives three gifts that it uses for revenge.
  • In Brother and Sister, Brother is transformed into a deer when he drinks from the third stream that their wicked stepmother enchanted, and when Sister is killed by the same stepmother, she visits her child's room three times, being caught and restored the third.
  • The hero used magical horses to climb three times to The Princess on the Glass Hill.
  • In The Death of Koschei the Deathless, Prince Ivan must watch Baba Yaga's horses three days to receive a horse that can outrun Koschei's.
  • In The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, a woman says she will bear the king three marvelous children; when they reappear, after an attempt by their envious aunts to kill them, their aunts try to kill them by sending them on three quests, after the three marvelous things of the title.
  • In The Silent Princess, a prince breaks a peasant woman's pitcher three times, and is cursed; when he finds the title princess, he must persuade her to speak three times.
  • In The Love for Three Oranges, the hero picks three magical oranges, and only with the third is able to keep the woman who springs out of it.
  • In Lewis Carroll´s Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 7, The Dormouse tells the story of three little sisters who lived on a treacle well.

In most folklore, there are three tasks which have to be performed to reach a certain goal.

Rhetoric and public speaking

The use of a series of three elements is also a well-known feature of public oratory. Max Atkinson, in his book on oratory entitled 'Our Masters' Voices' [2] gives interesting examples of how public speakers use three-part phrases to generate what he calls 'claptraps', evoking audience applause.

Examples include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's mantra of "Education, education, education".

See also


  1. ^ Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale, p 74, ISBN 0-292-78376-0
  2. ^ Atkinson. M. (1984) Our Masters' Voices: Language and Body Language of Politics Routledge

External links



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