Isocolon

Veni vidi vici: Isocolon structure
Veni vidi vici: an example of Isocolon. image courtesy of depositphotos"

Breaking Down Isocolon

Isocolon (derives from Greek word ἴσος (ísos), literally means “equal” and κῶλον (kôlon), meaning “member,” or “clause”), is a literary device and a kind of parallelismOpens in new window by which successive sentencesOpens in new window, clausesOpens in new window, or phrasesOpens in new window are structured similarly in length, rhythmOpens in new window and are grammatically parallel.

In some cases of isocolon, the structural balance may be so complete that the number of syllablesOpens in new window in each phraseOpens in new window is the same; in the more common case the parallel clauses merely use the same parts of speechOpens in new window in the same order. The device can produce pleasing rhythms, and the parallel structures it creates may helpfully reinforce a parallel substance in the speakers’s claims, as we would observe in the course of this discussion.

The Ancient GreeksOpens in new window were rather obsessed with isocolon for obvious reason being its sense of balance in writing, which reflected the sense of balance that they admired in thought. Isocolon is still used in the modern world. Common examples known in the modern age includes:

  • “Roses are red. Violets are blue;”
  • “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done;”
  • “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee;”
  • “I came, I saw, I conquer.”

Isocolon is not limited to two parallels, there is much more extended case as notable in John F. Kennedy’sOpens in new window inuaugural address in 1961:

  • “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
  • And likewise in Winston Churchill’sOpens in new window address:

  • “Fill the armies, rule the air, pour out the munitions, strangle the U-boats, sweep the mines, plough the land, build the ships, guard the streets, succor the wounded, uplift the downcast, and honour the brave.”

Types of Isocolon

There are three (3) types of isocolon, namely: the Bicolon, the TricolonOpens in new window, and the Tetracolon.

1.  The Bicolon refers to a pair of adjacent lines of poetry in which the second line echoes the meaning of the first.

Notable Examples of Bicolon

A common example of a bicolon phrase is the advertising slogan “buy one, get one free”. There are a couple of examples of Bicolon phrases in the Biblical poetry, particularly in Psalm 114, as outlined below:

  • When the Israelite escaped from Egypt, | when the family of Jacob left the foreign land.
  • He turned the rock into a pool of water, | yes, a spring of water flowed from the solid rock.
  • Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, | at the presence of the God of Jacob.
  • The Red sea saw them coming and hurried out of their way, | the Jordan river turned away.
  • The mountains skipped like rams, | the hills like lambs.
  • Judah became God’s sanctuary, | Israel his dominion.

2.  The Tricolon refers to a sentence with three parallel defined parts of equal length, usually in a series of independent clauses, as:

  • Veni, vidi, vici.
  • (Although, the English translated version [“I came; I saw; I conquered.”] is not a true tricolon, for its verbs are not all the same length, as is the case in the Latin)
    — Julius Caesar

    See more of TricolonOpens in new window.

3.  Tetracolon (Plural Tetracolons or Tetracola) or sometimes called Quatrains, is a stanza or division in lyric poetry, consisting of four successive verses or lines.

A Notable Example of Tetracolon includes:
  • “I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
    My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
    My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
    My figured goblets for a dish of wood…”
  • — Williams Shakespeare, Richard II
Notable Examples of the Isocolon

Isocolon often affords the interlocutor the capability to express multiple thoughts about the same subject:

  • “They who bow to the enemy abroad, will not be of power to subdue the consipirator at home.”
  • — Burke
  • “Veni, vidi, vici; as translated in the English language: I came, I saw, I conquered”
  • — Julius Caesar
  • “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I will learn.”
  • — Benjamin Franklin
  • “You think that the repealers of Ireland are conspicuously in the wrong; are you sure that you are yourselves conspicuously in the right?”
  • — Sheil, House of Commons
  • “Women of the class to which I allude are always talking of their rights, but seem to have a most indifferent idea of their duties.”
  • — Trollope
  • “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
    Amos 5:24
  • “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”
  • — Mathew 10:8
  • Queen: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
    Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.
    Queen: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
    Hamlet: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
  • — Hamlet, 3/4.
Important Hint! 

Isocolon, like all rhetorical devices, tends to mark an utterance as stylish and oratorical, it must be used with sensitivity to the occasion. An excessive use of the device will only prove awkward and incur us a Shakespearean slap on the wrist, as thus:

It’s much better to use it judiciously as proven relevant to any given occasion.

Further Readings:
Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence | How to Turn the Perfect English PhraseOpens in new window
Ward Farnsworth, Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric | Parallel Structure: Isocolon Opens in new window
Wikipedia | Isocolon Opens in new window; Ad Herennium 4.20.27 ("conpar"); Sherry (1550) 57 ("isocolon," "compar").