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Three, Not Two

Among the most prevalent modern-day cases of linguistic hypertrophy in American English is that of excessive repetition, in which traditionally fixed phrases comprising two identical items are pervasively being replaced by phrases with three, said without emphasis, as in over and over and over, day after day after day, side by side by sidestep by step by step. Cf. the following excrescent example, produced spontaneously in a radio interview by an otherwise fairly articulate speaker: “ran down and ran down and ran down . . . ran up and ran up and ran up . . .” (Allan Sloan, commentator, NPR, “Marketplace,” 6/5/06).

When no emphasis is intended or perceived, the trinomial as a substitute for a traditionally binomial construction can conceivably be reckoned as simply another instance of the contemporary penchant for pleonasm tout court. Note, however, that the new version always involves THREE items rather than TWO, and not more than three. This fact calls attention to itself, given the unimpeded possibility of four items rather than three––though hardly more––given the limits of normative sentence length working sub rosa in the communicative context. There is, in other words, something about the number three––vis-à-vis the number two––that works as an inducement to linguistic hypertrophy.

One could speculate that au fond this drift toward Thirdness is something inherent in the very nature of semiosis itself, defined (with C. S. Peirce) by the tri-relative bond between sign, object, and interpretant; and (nota bene) not being reducible to multiples of two.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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