Definition of Isocolon

An isocolon is a figure of speech in which there are two or more parts of a sentence that are identical in length, , and structure. One of the most common isocolon examples in English is the merchandising slogan “Buy one, get one.” In this sentence, “buy one” and “get one” are considered two cola (i.e., a distinct part that is grammatically complete, yet not logically complete by itself) which have equivalent length and rhythm, with the same grammatical structure. The definition of isocolon can be further broken into categories depending on the number of equivalent cola: bicolon, tricolon, or tetracolon for two, three, or four cola, respectively.

The word isocolon comes from the Greek words ἴσος (ísos), meaning “equal,” and κῶλον (kôlon), meaning “member” or “clause.”

Common Examples of Isocolon

Besides the very common bicolon “buy one, get one,” perhaps the most famous example of isocolon is Julius Caesar’s quotes “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). This is an example of a tricolon. There are a few other common phrases which are examples of iscolon of varying lengths, such as the following:

Some famous advertising slogans and lines from movies contain isocolon examples, such as the following:

Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hatred; hatred leads to ; conflict leads to suffering.

There are also many famous speeches which contain examples of isocolon. Here are some examples:

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

—Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

—Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.

—Winston Churchill, August 20, 1940

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

—John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 (Note: this is also an example of )

Significance of Isocolon in Literature

Isocolon creates a strong sense of symmetry and unity whether it is used in or in literature. Isocolon leads to very memorable lines because generally there is a good deal of rhythm through the of structures. Thus, it is no wonder, as we saw above, that advertisers love to use isocolon in company slogans. There is also much overlap between isocolon and other figures of speech that include repetition, such as , antimetabole, , anadiplosis, , , and so on. Many of these more specific figures of speech are also examples of isocolon since isocolon is a broader concept.

Examples of Isocolon in Literature

Example #1

KING RICHARD II: What must the king do now? must he submit?
The king shall do it: must he be deposed?
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go:
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,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave.

(Richard II by William Shakespeare)

Though this excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Richard II is often cut down to just four lines (“I’ll give my jewels…” to “dish of wood”) to make it appear a tetracolon, it is, in fact, a much longer isocolon even than that. King Richard II enumerates the many different things he would trade in for simpler options were he to abdicate, making this also an example of . The isocolon here is not just aesthetically pleasing, but also shows the way the King Richard II considers his livelihood and laments the situation he is now in.

Example #2

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

(“The Tyger” by William Blake)

William Blake’s short poem “The Tyger” contains this which has two key examples of isocolon, both bicolons: “What the hammer? what the chain,” and “what the anvil? what dread grasp.” Both of these lines function not only to repeat the structure, length, and rhythm, but also contextually. The “hammer” and “chain” are very similar semantically, just as “anvil” and “dread grasp” are. The rhythmic quality of the stanza creates a chant-like sense in the poem, and also speeds up the pace of the poem overall. This particular stanza explains how the fearful “tyger” in question was formed.

Example #3

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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities puts a number of on display. The most obvious thing is the of two opposites in a parallel structure. Thus, each small section functions as a bicolon, or, indeed, the entire paragraph can be considered one long isocolon with numerous cola that have very similar structures.