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Isocolon is a figure of speech. It occurs when a series of sentences or phrases are equal in length and follow one another.

Phrases or sentences that feature isocolon have a parallel structure. This means that they are the same when it comes to repetition, sound, and rhythm. Readers will likely find some of the same words in all three sentences. This device is used when a writer wants to emphasize something. This could be a command, a mantra of some kind, someone’s determined plans, or anything else that would benefit from short, punchy statements. 

Isocolon pronunciation: eye-so-coll-un

Isocolon definition and examples


Definition of Isocolon

The word isocolon comes from the Greek meaning “equal” and “member.” An isocolon is a set of statements that appear together and are of the same length. They will use the same, or similar, words, have around the name number of syllables and convey their meaning in a short, to the point, way. There are several different types of isocolons as well. There are bicolons, tricolons, and tetracolons. They are divided up based on how many clauses or sentences are included. For example, “buy one, get one” is a bicolon, and “Veni, vidi, vici” is a tricolon.


Examples of Isocolon in Literature 

The Tyger by William Blake 

In this famous example of Blake’s poetry, readers can see how effective an isocolon can be when used in verse. Consider these commonly quoted lines: 

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

In this stanza, readers can find two examples of isocolons. They are “What the hammer? What the chain” and “What the anvil? What dread grasp.” These are a great set of examples due to the fact that they make up two bicolons that together would form a tetracolon (if they were right next to one another). They use some of the same words, but not all of them, and they contain around the same number of syllables. The first sentence in both bicolons has four syllables, while the second sentences have three syllables. It should also be noted that the consistent beats in these lines help to mimic the content Blake is writing about. It’s easier to imagine the sound and feel of the furnace blasting heat and the anvil beating. 

Read more William Blake poems. 


A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens 

The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are some of the best-known among Dickens’s writing. He starts the novel with a series of statements that allude to the complex world readers are about to enter into. Consider this excerpt from the longer passage: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness […]

The passage goes on, adding more cola that adds more detail to the speaker’s world. Dickens brings together lightness and darkness, terrible times and wonderful times, and more. These statements are all similar to one another in structure, despite the fact that the number of syllables changes. The words “It was” appear numerous times throughout this passage. 

Explore Charles Dickens’s poetry.


Richard II by William Shakespeare 

William Shakespeare’s writing contains many good examples of a wide variety of literary devices. Isocolons are no exception. In the following lines, which can be found in Richard II, readers should note the use of parallelism. These statements define Richard’s feelings in regard to the crown and what is expected of him. 

My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,

My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,

My figured goblets for a dish of wood,

My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,

My subjects for a pair of carved saints

And my large kingdom for a little grave.

He’s prepared to give up his large and expensive kingdom and all his possessions for a much simpler life. By adding one of these statements on top of another he’s emphasizes how strongly he feels about this fact. 

Read William Shakespeare’s poetry including his 154 sonnets. 


Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln 

This incredibly famous speech was delivered by Abraham Lincoln on November 19th, 1863. It included the following lines: 

That government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

This is a great example of a tricolon. It contains three phrases that together use the same words. They work together to convey Lincoln’s beliefs about the country and what his goals for it are. He emphasizes the word “people” in each of the colas, ensuring the reader doesn’t miss the fact that the people of the United States are meant to be the ones creating, governing, and benefiting from the governance of the country. 

Explore Abraham Lincoln’s poetry. 


Why Do Writers Use Isocolon? 

Writers use isocolons when they want to emphasize a particular statement or belief. Such is the case with the Richard II example above. By using the same structure to assert different but related, things, the speaker makes sure the reader is entirely clear on how they feel. There are many different ways that isocolons can be used, though. One might use the form to create a pithy statement like “buy one, get one” or another similar slogan. It can be used more seriously and more simply depending on its context. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Accumulation: a literary device that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings.
  • Abstract diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral, or ungraspable.
  • Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
  • Antistrophe: a rhetorical device that’s concerned with the repetition of the same word or words at the end of consecutive phrases.
  • Enumeration: a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer chooses to list out items, events, ideas, or other parts of a story/setting.


Other Resources 

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