Mnemonic Devices

by Craig Shrives

What Are Mnemonic Devices? (with Examples)

Mnemonic devices are ways to remember things.
types of mnemonic devices
A common mnemonic device is the word "HOMES," which is used to remember the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).

Each letter in "HOMES" triggers the brain to recall the name of the lake. This is an example of a mnemonic device in the form of an acronym.

Another common mnemonic device is the sentence "My very educated mother just served us nine pumpkins," which is used to remember the order of the planets in the solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Nepture, and the dwarf planet Pluto).

The first letter of each word in the mnemonic triggers the brain to recall the name of the planet. This is an example of an acrostic mnemonic device.

Of interest, the word "mnemonic" comes from the Ancient Greek word "mneme," which means remembrance or memory.

The Seven Main Types of Mnemonic Device

Here are seven useful mnemonic devices. These are commonly used to remember lists and foreign vocabulary.

(1) Visualization

Our brains remember images better than words, so creating a visual cue is a great way to remember something. Here are two examples:

Visualization Example 1

The French word for "bread" is "pain" (pronounced pan). If you visualize some bread in a pan when you're learning "pain," it will help you recall it when needed.
mnemonic device visual cue example 1

Visualization Example 2

In Serbo-Croat, the word for "fish" is "riba." If you visualise the ribs of a fish, it will help you recall this word when you're next in a Yugoslav restaurant.
mnemonic device visual cue example 2

(2) Acronyms

An acronym is an abbreviation spoken like a word (e.g., SCUBA is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus). Using an acronym is a common way to help with memory recollection. Here are two examples:

Acronyms Example 1

The acronym FUDGEBOW helps with remembering German prepositions that take the accusative case.
memory
trigger
prepositionmeaning
Ffürfor
Uumround, around
Ddurchthrough
Ggegenagainst
Eentlangalong
Bbisuntil
O ohnewithout
W wideragainst, contrary to

Acronyms Example 2

The acronym BOSMAS is used in the UK to remember the order of operations in Mathematics.
memory
trigger
meaning
Bbrackets
Oorders
Ddivision
Mmultiplication
Aaddition
Ssubtraction
You can, of course, make up your own acronyms to help you remember things. It is a great technique for remembering lists.

(3) Acrostics

An acrostic is a mnemonic device that takes the first letters of things you need to remember and uses those letters to make a more memorable phrase or sentence. For example, "Easter Bunnies Get Dizzy At Easter" can be used to remember the guitar strings from bottom to top (EBGDAE). Here are two more examples:

Acrostics Example

This acrostic saying is used to remember the value of the Roman numerals.
  • "I Value Xylophones Like Cows Do Milk."
memory
trigger
number
I1
V5
X10
L50
C100
D500
M1000

Acrostics Example

This acrostic saying is used to remember the names and order of the wrist bones (carpal bones).
  • "So Long To Pinky, Here Comes The Thumb"
memory
trigger
bone name
Sscaphoid
Llunate
Ttriquetrum
Ppisiform
Hhamate
Ccapitate
Ttrapezoid
Ttrapezium

The Difference between Acrostics and Acronyms

Acrostics and acronyms are commonly confused. An acrostic is multiple words, the first letters of which are the memory triggers. With an acronym, the individual letters are the memory triggers.

Here is an example of an acrostic and an acronym for the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).
  • Ham Often Makes Emily Sick. This mnemonic is an acrostic.
  • HOMES. This mnemonic is an acronym.
Here is an example of an acrostic and an acronym for the order of operations in Mathematics. (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction)
  • Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. This mnemonic is an acrostic.
  • PEMDAS. This mnemonic is an acronym.
  • (In the UK, the acronym BODMAS is used (Brackets, Order, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction).)

(4) The Method of Loci

Also called "The Journey Method," this mnemonic device has been used for thousands of years (it was used by the ancient Greeks). It is a form of the visualization method.

Method of Loci Example

Let's imagine you are a stand-up comedian. You need to remember these things to remind you of your jokes:
method of loci (part 1)
  • Step 1: Choose a place you are familiar with (e.g., your house).
  • Step 2: Plot a route around your house and place the things along the route, telling a little story for each. For example:
    • A horse was blocking the front door.
    • A dog was waiting for his dinner in the kitchen.
    method of loci explanation
  • Step 3: To remember the list of things in order, mentally walk around the route again, visualizing the things and recalling the short stories.

(5) Story Telling

Story telling is a highly effective mnemonic device. Here is an example to remind you how to tie the bowline knot.
  • "The rabbit comes out the hole, around the back of the tree, and back down the hole."
bowline knot rabbit tree mnemonic device
Here are some more examples:
  • There is "a rat" in separate.
  • (This "story" reminds us how to spell "separate.")
  • Miss Pell does not misspell.
  • (This "story" reminds us how to spell "misspell.")

(6) Songs and Rhymes

Learning, or creating, a rhyme or a song is another useful technique for remembering things. Here is a well-known rhyme to help with spelling.

Rhyme Example

  • I before E, except after C and when sounding like A as in neighbour and weigh.

Song Example

Here is a 1.5-minute, popular song to help learn the colours of the rainbow:

(7) Chunking

This mnemonic device divides long pieces of information into smaller, easy-to-remember chunks. The way we say and remember telephone numbers is a good example of chunking:
  • 1-812-555-0344 is much easier to remember than 18125550344
Here is another example. Let's imagine you're trying to remember these 39 books of the Bible's Old Testament:
  • Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
A good ploy would be to break down the list into manageable chunks that you could learn using a mnemonic method. For example, you could use the acrostic "God's eternal love never dies" to remind you of the first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), and then create other acrostics, acronyms, stories, or visualizations for other chunks until you've covered all 39 books.

More about Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are not all about learning words or lists. Any technique you use to help you remember something else can be classified as a mnemonic device. For example, the song "Nellie the Elephant" is used by medical professionals to show first aiders the pace for administering the chest pumps during CPR.

Also, mnemonic devices can be invented by you and mixed up. This example uses a mix of story telling and acronyms.
  • "SEAN got three AAAs"
  • (This mnemonic is used to remember the names of the continents: South America, Europe, Asia, and North America and then Australia, Antarctica, and Africa.)

The Goddess of Memory

"Mnemosyne" is the goddess of memory in Greek mythology.
Mnemosyne Goddess of Memory
Mnemosyne was a Titan god (the gods that existed before the more famous Olympian gods). With Zeus, she produced the Muses, who inspire all the creative endeavours produced by humanity. Mnemosyne was also the aunt of Zeus. What? It was different time then.
Using mnemonic devices will improve your ability to recall lists, learn new vocabulary, and improve spelling. They are all important skills for passing exams. However, it's not all about exams. You can use these mnemonic devices to remember anything. Whether you're a teacher or an student, employing mnemonic devices is an important life skill.

Go! Play! Have fun! Remember stuff!

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See Also

How to improve your spelling The most commonly misspelled words in English The "schwa" vowel and why it causes spelling mistakes What is a diphthong? Spelling rules in English

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