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What is a Mnemonic?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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A mnemonic is a device to aid the memory. Sometimes called a mnemonic device, it captures information in a memorable way to help a person remember something that is important. Students often use them to quickly recall information that is frequently used and needs to be at their fingertips, but they are also used to help jog the memory of less frequently used information, for example, to recall symptoms or procedures for rarely encountered situations. People may also use one to remember things on a single occasion, such as a shopping list.

The type of memory device used is important because different people find different kinds of information easier to remember. Some people find that a rhyme most easily sticks in the mind, while others find that an association that they make themselves is the best strategy. Other people use whatever has already been created for the particular bit of information that they are trying to remember. The key is for individuals to choose a type of mnemonic that works well for them.

Some of the main types are rhymes, acronyms, associations, and sentences. Some mnemonics, including several used for spelling, take the form of short rhymes. One helps a person remember the order of the letters i and e in a word:

   I before e,
   except after c
   or when sounding like “a”
   as in neighbor or weigh.

Another helps with the spelling of words with vowel digraphs in which the pronunciation matches the sound of one of the vowels, as in the word beat or the word main:

   When two vowels go walking,
   The first one does the talking.

Another type is formed like an acronym with each letter or number carrying a reminder of some specific information. The ABCDEs for a mole to determine whether it might be cancerous are an example:

  • Assymetry
  • Border
  • Color
  • Diameter
  • Elevation

In a number mnemonic, each number has a rhyme word, and the information that a person wants to remember is associated with the rhyme. The words are referred to as “peg words” because the items to be remembered is “pegged” to them. One popular system is set up like this:

  1. sun
  2. shoe
  3. tree
  4. door
  5. hive
  6. sticks
  7. heaven
  8. gate
  9. vine
  10. pen

A sentence mnemonic carries information in each word, in one way or another. Some examples focus on the number of letters in each word. This is true in the uncredited rhyme:

   Sir, I send a rhyme excelling
   In sacred truth and rigid spelling
   Numerical sprites elucidate
   For me the lexicon's dull weight.

In this rhyme, the number of letters in the carefully ordered sequence of words gives the first 20 digits of the value of pi.

In other examples, the focus is the first letter of each word, which is often a reminder of order, as in "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally," which reminds people of the order of operations in solving a math problem: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.

Another popular example, though out of date, given the demotion of Pluto from planet status, is "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" to help recall the order of the planets from the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Aug 26, 2012

Here are a couple of my favorites: HOMES: The US Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

And "King Philip Came Over For Graduation Speeches," which is the order of classification: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. (Thanks, Mrs. T.!)

One from my husband is "I Do Follow Lonely Men And Laugh," which stands for the seven modes of music: Ionic, Doric, Frygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.

By anon149807 — On Feb 05, 2011

I made up a new Mnemonic Device for the planets. "My very excellent mother just served us noodles." Anthony G.

By BigBloom — On Jan 26, 2011

I've heard it said that the human mind can store more information than a nation of computers. In the past, Hindu scholars would memorize compendious volumes of books, equivalent to a hundred bibles. This is not hearsay, but was common among religious leaders. There was often no transmission of works and stories, and so they had to be passed down via dictation and memory.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 24, 2011

My father used to have us name ten completely random words and state them to him once in order. He would then repeat them to us later on in the day. This stunning memory was not a result of his genius, but of mnemonic devices.

By Armas1313 — On Jan 21, 2011

Usually, elaborate yet elegant methods are incredibly effective. I've seen some creative and memorable mnemonics in various places on the internet. If you are truly interested in being seen as having a "photographic" memory and learning multiple languages easily, you don't have to be a genius. You just have to work hard enough on these effective methods.

By BostonIrish — On Jan 19, 2011

The most effective ancient method of memory is the loci method. This has fallen into disuse because it may take more effort to learn than other mnemonic methods, but is much more effective and can be used for life. In the loci method, a person remembers locations in their house, or in the architecture of a familiar place, and assigns each room a number. When you are required to memorize a list, you can remember each of the items in those rooms. Knowledge of compendious volumes of works and large speeches is possible and easy once you put enough work into developing a surefire loci mnemonic method.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth

Writer

Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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