First-Letter Mnemonics

Techniques to Improve Memory: First-Letter Mnemonics Examined

First-letter mnemonics are memory strategies that use the initial letters of words as aids to remembering. This can be an effective technique because initial letters are helpful retrieval cues, as anyone who has endeavored to remember something by mentally running through the letters of the alphabet can attest to.

Types of First-Letter Mnemonic

First-letter mnemonics generally fall into two categories:

  1. Acronyms, by which initial letters form a meaningful word;
  2. Acrostics, whereby initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase.

ROY G. BIV is an acronym (for the colors of the rainbow – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Velvet), and Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain is an acrostic for the same information.

Similarly, the acronym FACE is used to remember the notes in the spaces of the treble staff, and the acrostic Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

Here’s some more well-known examples. Some acronyms first:

  • MRS GREN — the characteristics of living things: Movement; Respiration; Sensitivity; Growth; Reproduction; Excretion; Nutrition.
  • BEDMAS — the order of mathematical operations: Brackets; Exponent; Division; Multiplication; Addition; Subtraction.
  • HOMES — the Great Lakes in the U.S.A.: Huron; Ontario; Michigan; Erie; Superior.

And some acrostics:

  • My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas — the order of the planets: Mercury; Venus; Earth; Mars; Jupiter; Saturn; Uranus; Neptune; Pluto.
  • Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle — the order of sharps in music.
  • King Philip Came Over From Great Spain — the order of categories in the taxonomy of living things: Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species

It’s likely that you’ll know very different acrostics for these same items. That’s one difference between acronyms and acrostics—the same acronyms are likely to be known to everyone, but acrostics are much more varied. The reason’s not hard to seek — clearly there are infinite possibilities for acrostics, but very very limited possibilities for acronyms.

This means, of course, that opportunities to use acronyms are also very limited. It is only rarely that the initial letters of a group of items you wish to learn will form a word or series of words or at least a pseudo-word (a series of letters that do not form a word but are pronounceable as one — like BEDMAS).

Nothing is going to make MVEMJSUNP (the order of planets) memorable in itself, even if you break it up into vaguely intelligible bits, like this: M.V. Em J. Sun P. (although that does help — say it and you’ll see why). Acrostics, on the other hand, are easy to create, and any string of items can be expressed in that form. For example:

  • My Very Earnest Mother Jumped Seven Umbrellas Near Paris
  • Michael Voted Every May Judiciously Since Union Newsletters Plunged

Technically, it’s not difficult. But of course the aim is not simply to devise acrostics — it’s to create good acrostics. That is, memorable ones. And that is not quite as easy.

How to Create Effective First-Letter Mnemonics

Let’s start this section with one of the best-known mnemonics Opens in new window in geography, in the United States at least: HOMES — an acronym for the Great Lakes. Less well-known are sentence mnemonics to help you remember the geographical order of the lakes (from west to east or east to west), or their relative size. There are a few around. Here’s some as constructed by the author:

  • Simon Makes Herons Eat Olives (the Great Lakes from west to east)
  • Oliver Eats Herrings Marinated Slowly (from east to west)
  • Simon Has Many Elegant Owls (in order of size)

Now, these are all useful mnemonics, but they are only useful in very particular circumstances, glaringly obvious to non-North Americans at least. Namely, you need to already know the names of the Great Lakes.

All the lakes have fairly obvious cues: Superior is a familiar word; Erie is very close to the word eerie; Huron is very close to heron; both Ontario and Michigan are names for the province/state they’re in. So if you aren’t that familiar with the names of the lakes, rather than HOMES, you would be better with an acrostic like this one:

A heron is superior in Ontario but eerie in Michigan.

In fact, because HOMES is such a good acronym, being a short, very familiar word, the best mnemonic would be:

A heron is superior in Ontario but eerie in Michigan HOMES.

This sentence makes sense, and ties the two mnemonics together. This is good because both have value, and have slightly different functions. HOMES is much easier to remember and provides valuable first-letter retrieval cues; the acrostic provides more detailed cues for the items.

But neither the acrostic nor the acronym provides any order information. Let’s look at the author’s suggested acrostics for order:

  • Simon Makes Herons Eat Olives (the Great Lakes from west to east)
  • Oliver Eats Herrings Marinated Slowly (from east to west)
  • Simon Has Many Elegant Owls (in order of size)

There are two obvious problems with these:

  1. they provide no information to help you with remembering the items themselves other than the first-letter retrieval cues, and
  2. they provide no clues to tell you what particular order is being specified.

Here are some examples that might be better for the size order:

  • Simon Has Many Enormous Owls
  • Superior Herons Might Eat Owls
  • Superior Herons Might Eat Oreos
  • Sizing Herons Might Efface Owls

These words are better reminders of the items, for the most part. “Owls” is not good cue for Ontario, but unfortunately (though not uncommonly), there are few words reminiscent of Ontario! “Oreos” is probably a better one, but only for those who are familiar with Oreos (personally, not being an American, I know of them only by repute — which isn’t really enough to make them a good cue for me) (Fiona McPherson, Mnemonics for Study [2nd ed.]).

“Superior” might be a good enough cue for you to put the acrostic in its proper context, because superior does vaguely have connotations of size. But it may not — hence the suggested use of “Sizing” instead of “Superior”.

On the other hand, “Sizing” is not a particularly good cue for “Superior”. So which of these words would be more effective for you depends on whether it’s more important for you to have a clue to the name or the function of the acrostic.

The clue to context doesn’t have to be in the first word (in the first example, the fourth word, “Enormous”, is the clue), but I suspect it’s a good idea, where possible. Here are some examples for direction order that incorporate hints that direction provides the order:

From east to west:
  • Oriental Enemies Have Marine Snails
  • Oriental East Heads More Sunset

The first of these makes a little more sense, but only the first word provides a clue to the context (east to west). The second is full of clues that this is about direction and the direction is east to west, but doesn’t really make sense as a sentence. Neither provide any clues to the items themselves; they are there only to provide first-letter retrieval cues.

Maybe we’ll have more luck with the opposite direction (you only need to know either west or east, or east to west, after all!).

From west to east:
  • Sunset Moves Heavily East Orientally
  • Sunset Moves Heavily East [to the] Orient
  • Simon May Head East Occasionally

These examples confirm what was suggested in the earlier examples — you can’t provide both direction clues and content clues; the words can’t bear the double burden. You have to choose which is more important to you. Or, of course, learn two separate mnemonics (or indeed, three, if size is also important to you). There’s no particular problem with that, as long as the mnemonics provide the needed cues as to context.

These last two acrostics also provide examples of two permissible actions: making up words (orientally), and putting in small words that don’t count (i.e., they’re not to be considered when pulling out the first-letter cues; they’re only there to help the acrostic make sense).

Again, quoting the author, “I say these actions are permissible; I don’t say they’re desirable. Both should only be resorted to when better alternatives fail, for invented words are less memorable, and redundant words are potentially confusing.

“The last example I give makes more sense and doesn’t have these drawbacks; it doesn’t, however, have the context clue in the first word. On the other hand, I think the sentence as a whole provides a strong enough context clue that this doesn’t matter (the point being, that a coherent sentence will be treated more readily as a whole, rather than processed word by word).

“This analysis has, I hoped, suggested a number of rules for creating effective first-letter mnemonics, but before we summarize these, we need to consider some problems with this type of mnemonic.” (Fiona McPherson, Mnemonics for Study [2nd ed.])

Problems with First-Letter Mnemonics

Medical students are probably the group who use first-letter mnemonics most. Here’s a medical example that demonstrates a common problem with first-letter mnemonics:

On Old Olympia’s Towering Top A Finn And German Vault And Hop

This is a mnemonic for remembering the cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal. Of course, reiterating my earlier point, the mnemonic wouldn’t help most of us remember this information, because we don’t know these names. But there’s another problem with this acrostic: three Os, two Ts and three As.

This is a particular problem when the purpose of the acrostic is to remind you of the precise order of items, for obvious reasons. In such a case, you need to use words that distinguish between similar items. Thus, a better acrostic for our medical students might be:

Oliver Operates Occasional Tropical Tricks Absurdly For Australian Gymnasts Vaulting Actual Helicopters

“Except that the traditional acrostic does have two big advantages that make it a much more memorable sentence: rhythm and rhyme. Say them both aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.

“Let’s try for an acrostic that contains the vital information and is memorable.

Oliver Opens Oceans; Tropical Trips Abet; Fabulous Authors Gushing; Violent Acts Hinted

“Okay, this isn’t very good either, and it took a little while to come up with. I’ve tried to distinguish the same-initial terms by including the second letter. The problem is, this additional constraint makes a big difference in limiting the possibilities.

“Also, of course, creating an acrostic with rhyme and rhythm requires a great deal more work than simply creating a meaningful sentence. Rhyme and rhythm do, however, render the acrostic considerably more memorable.

“In fact, were I trying to memorize the 12 cranial nerves, I wouldn’t use a first-letter mnemonic. Let us consider what you need to learn:

  • The names of each nerve
  • The function of each nerve
  • The order of each nerve

The cranial nerves are not simply in a particular order; they are numbered. This immediately suggests the appropriate mnemonic: the pegword mnemonic Opens in new window. And the need to remember some rather strange names, and associate this information with function, suggests another useful mnemonic: the keyword mnemonic Opens in new window. We'll return to this example in the discussion of story mnemonic.

As with all mnemonics, there are guidelines for creating first-letter mnemonics. Before getting to the guidelines for creating good first-letter mnemonics, there’s one more aspect we need to consider — when first-letter mnemonics are useful.

When First-Letter Mnemonics Are a Good Strategy to Use, And When They’re Not

As I implied at the beginning, first-letter mnemonics are effective because initial letters make good retrieval cues. But there’s another critical point that’s less obvious.

Several studies have found that first-letter mnemonics are of no particular benefit in helping remember, but in all these cases, students were asked to learn unrelated words1. However, one study found there was a benefit when the order of items became important2, and further investigation confirmed that while the mnemonic isn’t useful for learning new sets of unrelated items, it does help when the items themselves don’t have to be learned, but the order of them does3.

The same study also confirmed that, by an overwhelming margin, the chief type of error made by those using a first-letter mnemonic is that of reversal — that is, confusing an item with another item with the same initial.

So, it seems that first-letter mnemonics are of no particular benefit when order isn’t important, although if the items in a list lend themselves to a memorable acronym (such as HOMES), then you should certainly take advantage of that fact. Such opportunities will, however, be rare.

Acrostics are much more widely applicable, but generally less memorable than acronyms.

So when are first-letter mnemonics a good strategy to use?

The best time is when you have a relatively short list of items, with very familiar items that all begin with different initials. Items should be related — items provide a much more limited set of possibilities for your initials, and are thus better retrieval cues.

The results of one study have also suggested that first-letter mnemonics may be more effective for females than males, for whom strategies involving visualization may be superior4. I imagine this reflects a broader preference of visual over verbal strategies, rather than a particular indictment of first-letter mnemonic however.

Because of their power as retrieval cues, first-letter mnemonics are also particularly recommended for students who suffer from exam anxiety, with consequent memory blocks (having your mind go blank when you look at the exam questions).

Teachers and writers might also like to note a study that found that giving the initial letters of the main points of a concrete (but not an abstract) passage, either before or after the students read the passage, helped them retrieve the main points. Like other strategies that aid memory for particular items, it was however at the expense of remembering other details5.

Principles for Creating Effective Acrostics
Unfamiliar items need more cues. If the items are well-known, and the acrostic is only needed as a remainder or to provide order information, choice of words is only constrained by initial letter. However, if the items are not well-known, the words must also provide cues to the items.

Choose familiar words. Where possible, the words chosen should be familiar words (which are more easily recalled).

Make it meaningful. As much as possible, the acrostic itself should make coherent sense (a meaningful sentence is remembered more easily).

Cue the order. If the acrostic is providing a particular type of order, where more than one type is possible, then it needs to also contain cues to what kind of order is involved.

Keep it simple (don’t force your mnemonic to carry too much information). If the acrostic is required to bear information about order, kind of order, and item content, it is usually better to create more than one mnemonic.
    Adapted from the book: Mnemonics for Study (2nd ed.), authored by Fiona McPherso