Rhetorical Device: Isocolon

The rhetorical term isocolon, which comes from the Greek word 'iso,' meaning equal, refers to a series of phrases, clauses, or sentences, of equal length and/or equal importance. This term encompasses bicolon (two clauses/sentences of equal length), tricolon (three clauses/sentences of equal length), and tetracolon (four clauses/sentences of equal length). This tool of rhetoric is often used in literature and in speeches to create cadence and rhythm and to emphasize ideas or concepts.

Examples

You have to admire the symmetry of these stirring remarks by Winston Churchill which are taken from a wartime speech he gave at the Manchester Free Trade Hall a few months before he became Prime Minister. The piece contains a tricolon, a bicolon, an extended isocolon, another bicolon and another tricolon.

Come then: let us to the task, to the battle, to the toileach to our part, each to our station. 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, succour the wounded, uplift the downcast, and honour the brave. Let us go forward together in all parts of the Empire, in all parts of the Island. There is not a week, nor a day, nor an hour to lose. Winston Churchill, "A Time to Dare and Endure" (27 January 1940)

One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first. Malala Yousafzai, "UN Speech on Youth Education" (12 July 2013)
WWS rhetorical device explainer card on isocolon

Here is a very interesting example from Roger Casement, a former diplomat, humanitarian activist and Irish nationalist who was on trial for treason. In the following segment, Casement is pointing out the absurdity of his being tried on a 565 year old statute; a statute so old that it was not even written in English but in an archaic form of French. To get his points across, he balances clauses against eachother within an isocolon structure (what I call a 'complex isocolon').
I am being tried, in truth, not by my peers of the live present, but by the fears of the dead past; not by the civilization of the twentieth century, but by the brutality of the fourteenth; not even by a statute framed in the language of the land that tries me, but emitted in the language of an enemy land — so antiquated is the law that must be sought today to slay an Irishman, whose offence is that he puts Ireland first! Loyalty is a sentiment, not a law. It rests on love, not on restraint. The government of Ireland by England rests on restraint, and not on law; and since it demands no love, it can evoke no loyalty. Roger Casement, "Speech From The Dock" (29 June 1916)

Here is an example from President Eisenhower where he uses a simple tricolon, a complex bicolon and then another simple tricolon.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Cross of Iron” (16 April 1953)

Isocolon can be fun. Before Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) handed over the gavel to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who had been elected as Speaker of the House on the 15th ballot, he decided to have some fun and gave a speech that featured this epic isocolon:
I also want to make clear that we will never compromise our principles,
House Democrats will always put
American values over autocracy,
Benevolence over bigotry,
the Constitution over the cult,
Democracy over demagogues,
Economic opportunity over extremism,
Freedom over fascism,
Governing over gaslighting,
Hopefulness over hatred,
Inclusion over isolation,
Justice over judicial overreach,
Knowledge over kangaroo courts,
Liberty over limitation,
Maturity over Mar-a-Lago,
Normalcy over negativity,
Opportunity over obstruction,
People over politics,
Quality of life issues over QAnon,
Reason over racism,
Substance over slander,
Triumph over tyranny,
Understanding over ugliness,
Voting rights over voter supression,
Working families over the well connected,
Xenial over xenophobia,
"Yes, we can" over "you can't do it", and
Zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation.
We will always do the right thing by the American people. Hakeem Jeffries, “Remarks upon becoming House Minority Leader” (7 January 2023)


Further reading

  • Wikipedia: Isocolon Visit
  • Silva Rhetoricæ: The Forest of Rhetoric Visit
  • LiteraryDevices.net article on Isocolon Visit
  • The Write Practice: Isocolon Visit
  • Ifioque.com: Isocolon Visit