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Treble / triple trouble?

Darts in dartboard

Consider the following sentences: do they strike you as completely unexceptional, or would you prefer to change the instances of treble to triple, or vice versa?

  • The proposals will treble the size of the tiny village.
  • The company is set to triple its output in one year.
  • Double or even treble rows of blast walls now protect embassies.
  • Members are entitled to receive double or triple points on car rentals.
  • Two brandies – triples, please!
  • Crispin poured drinks for himself and Kay: Jeremy had given himself a treble.

Before we go any further, I should stress that all the above examples are acceptable in today’s English. Whether they crop up as nouns, verbs, or adjectives, treble and triple largely share the same set of meanings, centred on the number three in respect of parts, size, or quantity. And yes, the linguistically astute amongst you will be aware that triple and treble can also function as pronouns, determiners, and predeterminers, but I’m keeping it simple here: the entries for each word in our online dictionary give full grammatical information.

I’m pretty sure that your responses to the choices I offered you at the outset largely depend on which regional variety of English you speak, or perhaps just on your personal preference. Generally speaking, there’s no diktat which prohibits the use of either term (sighs of relief all round!). As always, though, there are a few exceptions to this, and cases where the meanings of treble and triple don’t always overlap. In music and acoustic contexts, the correct term is always treble: you couldn’t replace treble with triple in the term treble clef, for example, because the meaning is related to musical pitch, not the number three. Let’s look at these words in more depth and highlight some of the similarities and differences between them.

Which is more common: triple or treble?

Researching the overall figures for these two words (that is, disregarding different parts of speech) on the Oxford English Corpus, I discovered that, in terms of the number of occurrences, triple is nearly six times more common than treble. Also, treble is more frequent in British, Irish, and Australian English than in North American English:

Triple Treble
Total instances on OEC 32,216 5,679
British/Irish/Australian 8,871 3,762
US and Canadian 17,267 896

Another factor to take into account is that, in the case of treble, a significant proportion of examples, especially in North American English, are for the musical set of meanings (more of which later) rather than the meanings related to ‘three’.

No troubles regarding trebling and tripling

Let’s deal with the most straightforward situation. There’s no distinction in meaning at all between treble and triple when used as verbs, with both meaning:

  • become three times as much or as many: grain prices were expected to triple; he’s calculating that his salary will triple at a stroke.
  • make three times as much or as many: we turned the company around and trebled turnover in two years; human activities have doubled or even tripled the amount of mercury in the atmosphere.

As we’ve seen, your choice of word will depend more on what type of World English you speak, although if you work in publishing or for large organizations, you should follow the advice of in-house style guides.

Triple chins and treble zeros

As an adjective, triple has two main meanings:

  • relating to or consisting of three items, parts, people, or groups: opening night was a triple bill of French music by Debussy, Offenbach, and Poulenc; the three border countries formed a triple alliance to your detriment.
  • having three times the usual size, quantity, or strength: I ordered a triple vodka; his jawline has slackened into a triple chin.

As for treble, it’s far less frequent as an adjective than triple, but the main meanings are:

  • consisting of three parts: the fish were caught with large treble hooks.
  • multiplied or happening three times: she turned back to make a double and treble check.
  • (of a number) occurring three times in succession: call us on 0500 403 treble zero.

Given that treble can mean ‘consisting of three parts’, you might expect to find treble jump as well as triple jump, but this isn’t the case. There are some fixed expressions (such as triple jump and triple bond) where treble isn’t encountered. Again, you’ll find a complete list of these in Oxford Dictionaries.

Lastly, although the general observation about adjectival treble being infrequently encountered in American English holds good, Bryan Garner notes (in Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage) that in American legal contexts, treble is favoured over triple in the fixed expression treble damages (legal damages that are three times more than the actual loss incurred by a plaintiff):

Federal or state prosecutors, as well as private litigants, could win treble damages by proving violations of the law.

Going for the treble

As a noun, treble crops up frequently in British English sporting contexts, where it refers to three victories or championships in the same season or event:

We scored a lot of late goals the year we won the treble.

The following morning he was back in Dublin and went on to ride a treble at Leopardstown on Sunday.

The other main meanings are:

  • a hit on the narrow ring enclosed by the two middle circles of a dartboard, scoring treble.
  • a type of bet in which three selections are made, with any winnings from the first being transferred to the second and then (if successful) to the third.
  • a threefold quantity or thing, especially a drink of spirits of three times the standard measure: get the drinks in—mine’s a treble!

Triple also occurs with this same meaning:

He’s knocking back the beer and triples.

Additionally, the noun triple has two other main senses:

  • a sporting contest in which each side has three players: men’s triples will be held on Friday and comprises two games after a 1230 start.
  • a hit in baseball which enables the batter to reach third base: he had 22 home runs, seven triples, 27 doubles and 27 stolen bases.

Turn up the bass, turn up the treble…

Finally, as touched on above, treble has a completely separate meaning, which nowadays has nothing to do with the number three and is never interchangeable with triple. This is the meaning that relates to high-pitched voices or musical instruments and derives from the fact that, in early music, the treble was the highest part in a contrapuntal composition for three voices. You’ll encounter treble as both an adjective (sometimes classified as a noun modifier) and a noun in musical and audio contexts. Here are the main meanings:

  • a high-pitched voice, especially a boy’s singing voice: [noun] the boy replied in a shrill treble; [adjective/modifier] Price tugged at the heartstrings in the title role with his beautiful treble voice.
  • relating to a relatively high-pitched member of a family of similar musical instruments: [adjective/modifier] a suite of five pieces for treble recorder.
  • the high-frequency output of a radio or audio system, corresponding to the treble in music: [noun] the recording preserves most of the piano’s dynamic range, betrayed only by some fuzziness in the treble; [adjective/modifier] you may find that the sound is helped by adjustment of treble/bass controls.