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"The Ancient Greeks were rather obsessed with isocolon, the modern world has rather forgotten it" (Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence, 2013). (Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)
Updated June 06, 2017
Isocolon is a rhetorical term for a succession of phrases, clauses, or sentences of approximately equal length and corresponding structure. Plural: isocolons or isocola.
An isocolon with three parallel members is known as a tricolon. A four-part isocolon is a tetracolon climax.
"Isocolon is particularly of interest," notes T.V.F. Brogan, "because Aristotle mentions it in the Rhetoric as the figure that produces symmetry and balance in speech and, thus, creates rhythmical prose or even measures in verse" (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2012).
From the Greek, "of equal members or clauses"
Examples and Observations
(advertising slogan of Timex watches)
Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too? Dr. Pepper!"
(advertising jingle for Dr. Pepper soft drink)
(Winston Churchill, speech given in Manchester, England, on January 29, 1940)
(Orual in Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis. Geoffrey Bles, 1956)
(James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1917)
Effects Created by Isocolon
"Isocolon . . ., one of the most common and important rhetorical figures, is the use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure. . . . In some cases of isocolon the structural match may be so complete that the number of syllables in each phrase is the same; in the more common case the parallel clauses just use the same parts of speech in the same order. The device can produce pleasing rhythyms, and the parallel structures it creates may helpfully reinforce a parallel substance in the speaker's claims. . . .
"An excessive or clumsy use of the device can create too glaring a finish and too strong a sense of calculation."
(Ward Farnsworth, Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. David R. Godine, 2011)
The Isocolon Habit
"Historians of rhetoric continually puzzle over why the isocolon habit so thrilled the Greeks when they first encountered it, why antithesis became, for a while, an oratorical obsession. Perhaps it allowed them, for the first time, to 'see' their two-sided arguments."
(Richard A. Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2nd ed.Continuum, 2003)
The Difference Between Isocolon and Parison
- "Isocolon is a sequence of sentences of equal length, as in Pope's 'Equal your merits! equal is your din!' (Dunciad II, 244), where each sentence is assigned five syllables, iconizing the concept of equal distribution. . . .
"Parison, also called membrum, is a sequence of clauses or phrases of equal length."
(Earl R. Anderson, A Grammar of Iconism. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1998)
- The Tudor rhetoricians do not make the distinction between isocolon and parison. . . . The definitions of parison by Puttenham and Day make it identical with isocolon. The figure was in great favor among the Elizabethans as is seen from its schematic use not only in Euphues, but in the work of Lyly's imitators."
(Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language.
Columbia Univ. Press, 1947)
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