The Rule of Three
“Three – it’s the magic number!”
The number 3 has been revered as special or different for thousands of years – ever since humanity first invented the concept of numbers. In cultures across the globe it crops up time and time again: we often write phone numbers in groups of three, Shakespeare had three witches, and we all recognise the phrase, ‘third time lucky’. The number 3 has significance in many religions and superstitions, from Norse paganism to Christianity, with its holy trinity, to the ‘lucky’ three leaf clover. Most colours can be mixed from three primaries – red, yellow and blue.
The number also has plenty of linguistic significance. Using groups of three is a well-known writing technique, dating at least as far back as ancient Greece. The so-called ‘rule of three’ is even evident in fairy tales: the three billy goats gruff; the three bears; the three little pigs; the three musketeers. Triads appear across literature in many languages, from stories to political speeches and marketing campaigns: veni, vidi, vici; slip slap slop.
In western alphabets, too, most (if not all) letters can be written with just three strokes of the pen – similar to the rule of thirds in visual art. Amazingly, some languages have no words for numbers above three – the aboriginal Walpiri of central Australian, for example, would count, ‘One, two, many,’ while others use a ‘base two’ system of counting. In the Gumulgal culture, one to five is counted:
And of course, the Rosetta stone was written in three languages – demotic, hieroglyphic, and traditional Greek.
So why is this? As a species we seem to have a natural affinity for it: it’s been suggested that when counting a group of objects, three is the highest number we can recognise instantly without having to count (“subitising”). It’s a matter of instinct, although it might be improved by training. Unfortunately, the true meaning of three’s significance remains a mystery – but its power is worth remembering, for those who would teach, learn and persuade!