What I tell you three times is true

Today’s Zippy strip takes us to triple Dinerland in Rockford MI (as it was before it closed in 2011), in a celebration of the rule of three — a narrative principle that favors trios of events or characters in all sorts of contexts:

(#1) The Three Musketeers (in the Dumas novel and the movies), the Three Little Pigs (vs. the Big Bad Wolf in the fable), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (the 1966 epic spaghetti Western), and the Three Stooges (the vaudeville and slapstick comedy team best known for their 190 short films)

The rule of three in a little while, but first, the diners of Rockford MI (a town of a few thousand people about 10 miles north of Grand Rapids).

(On the title of this posting: “what I tell you three times is true” is the Bellman’s rule of three from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.)

From the Roadside Architecture site on Michigan Diners (verbatim), about Dinerland, Rosie’s Diner, and the Diner Store in Rockford:


Dinerland consists of four diners and a food-themed mini golf. Dinerland was founded by Jerry Berta who bought “Uncle Bob’s Diner” and brought it here from Flint, MI in 1987. It is an O’Mahony from 1947. Berta restored it and turned it into a studio and gallery known as The Diner Store … In 2010, this diner was turned into “Rosie’s Ice Cream Shoppe”.

[Another diner] is a Paramount from 1946. This diner was designed with extra room between the counter and the seating area. It was originally located in Little Ferry, NJ where it was known as the “Silver Dollar Diner”. It was renamed Rosie’s Diner in 1970. The name was kept when it was moved here and reopened in 1991.

In 1994, Berta bought a third diner, the Garden of Eatin’, a 1952 Silk City from Fulton, NY … When it was relocated to Dinerland and as a sports bar and for private parties. It was used as a sports bar.

The fourth diner…  was built by Berta. It was used as a billiard room for the sports bar.

In 2011, just after [this photo was taken], Dinerland closed. The diners and the property were sold in 2012. The diners are still there and remain closed.

So, three actual diners of some sort (places serving food), and for some time only three. That gave Bill Griffith his hook for playing with the rule of three.

The narrative rule of three. From Wikipedia:

The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers. The audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.

Slogans, film titles, and a variety of other things have been structured in threes, a tradition that grew out of oral storytelling. Examples include the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Three Musketeers. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.

The Wikipedia entry is rich with examples, of many sorts. Including slogans and catchphrases, among them the political slogans of this month, the month of July:

— Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: rights outlined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence — for Independence Day, 7/4

— Liberté, égalité, fraternité: the slogan of the French Republic predating 1790 — for Bastille Day, 7/14

More in my 5/29/14 posting “Threesies”, starting with a Bob Mankoff mini-course on cartoon fundamentals and the psychology of humor; one course topic: “things are funnier in threes”:

… [Mankoff:] things are funnier in threes because you need a sequence of at least two to create the right surprise. Without surprise, there is no joke. Surprise requires a setup sequence to work most effectively. Usually what’s called a “triplet” is involved, with two items leading to a third, which functions as a punch line.

(Triplets are a common feature of jokes in general, not just those that have been turned into cartoons. And they are also a common feature of a type of non-joke story — the princess chooses from the suitors that present themselves one after another, for instance.)

… Sets of three come up in a great many contexts. In particular, there is a conventional formula involving a three-way repetition: what I’ve called the x3 snowclone.

X3: The three most important Xs in Y are: Z, Z, Z. (conveying something like ‘the only really important X in Y is Z’).

(For example: the three most important considerations in real estate are location, location, location. Conveying that location is the only important thing in real estate.)

For discussion, see my Language Log posting of 11/27/04, “Twos and threes”. What’s crucial here is that not any three-way repetition counts as an instance of the snowclone — there are immense numbers of such things (“what I tell you three times is true”; “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee” and so on) — but the link between form and semantics/pragmatics in X3 is both conventional and very specific.

… Mankoff’s triples and the X3 snowclone both make use of the magic number 3, but in very different ways and for very different reasons. Well, for that matter, all Gaul is divided into three parts, but that has nothing to do with either triples or X3.



4 Responses to “What I tell you three times is true”

  1. Stephen Anderson Says:

    Interestingly, among the indigenous peoples of the Northwest coast (of NA), four replaces three as the rhetorical magic number.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Four is a magic number in “Western” (and some other) traditions, but in the analysis of substance, not rhetorical form: earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements, for instance. (Cute observation: for the *band name*, we got Earth, Wind and Fire; Earth, Wind, Fire and Water would have been too long.)

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    Back when I was a college undergraduate, I wrote a paper applying the “rule of three” (which I did not name as such) to Schubert’s song Erlkönig. The professor, as I recall, was not particularly impressed.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, there are lots of manifestations of threeness (besides triads and X3), as I tried to emphasize in my posting. Three repetitions of something is a common one; it’s a Masonic thing, famously exploited by Mozart in Zauberflöte.

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