Verbal Mnemonics

Memory Cues: Simple Verbal Mnemonics Explained

Verbal Mnemonics are memory aids that rely on verbal materials. Although verbal mnemonics have not met with the same popularity as the visual imagery mnemonics Opens in new window, several verbal or non-visual strategies have been devised to improve memory. For example, many students are familiar with rhymes such as ’30 days hath September, April, June, and November …’, where rhythm and rhymes provide structures that aid recall.

Research has shown that asking people to make up a story that links together a list of words makes later recall of those words much better. Crovitz (1979) used the “airplane list,” in which 10 words are embedded in a story with each word linked to the next:

  • “The first word is umpire and you can remember that any way you like. The second word is nose because the umpire was hit on the nose by a ball. The third word is iceberg because the umpire crashed his nose into an iceberg. The fourth word is vase because an ancient Egyptian vase was balanced on the iceberg. The fifth word is elephant because an elephant picked up the vase with his trunk. The sixth word is refugee because a refugee was escaping on the elephant’s back. The seventh word is skylark because a skylark was flying round and round the refugee’s head. The eighth word is imp because a mischievous imp trapped the skylark in a net. The next word is tree because the imp climbed up a tree to hide. The last word is yak because a big yak came up to the tree to scratch his back.”

The list of words to be remembered was umpire, nose, iceberg, vase, elephant, refugee, skylark, imp, tree, and yak (the first letters of these make the word university, which coincides with the first-letter mnemonic, discussed below).

Reduction versus Elaboration Codes

Mnemonics Opens in new window using verbal materials tend to fall into one of two categories: using either a reduction code or an elaboration code.

A reduction code reduces the amount of information.

  • For example, to remember certain rules of trigonometry, my father was taught at school to use the nonsense word SOHCAHTOA

Whereas an elaboration code increases or meaningfully recodes the same information.

  • In elaboration code, to learn the same trigonometric relationships, I was taught at school to use the expression Some Old Horses Chew Apples Heartily Throughout Old Age.

Another example of an elaboration code is the first-letter mnemonic Opens in new window Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, which helps us to remember the colors of the rainbow by matching the first letter of each word (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).

For both elaboration and reduction codes, the coding technique produces information that is easier to remember than the original source material. This is because the coded information is typically more meaningful to the user than the original source information. Such techniques have been used to remember, for example, dates in history.

By assigning numbers to the letters of the alphabet, if one is having difficulty remembering a specific date, such as 1815 for the Battle of Waterloo Opens in new window, this could instead be re-coded as AHAE. Although this is a nonsense word, it could be more meaningful to the person concerned than the number itself.

  • For example, it could be used to create an acronym, such as ‘An Historic Attack (in) Europe’.

Of course, as with every mnemonic, the time and energy invested in deriving and applying the mnemonic has to be weighed against the potential added that the mnemonic contributes in remembering.

A combination of reduction codes and elaboration codes can be used together. For example, citing the amiable author of this literature, “as a medical student I was taught to remember the cranial nerves via a code which first reduced the first letter of each of the cranial nerves (O, O, O, T, T, A, F, A, G, V, A, H), and then transformed these letter via an elaboration code into a bawdy (and very memorable!) verse”. The author adds, “I write this book almost twenty five years later, I can still remember the verse, even if I may struggle a little to convert back from the verse to the original source information (i.e., the names of the twelve cranial nerves).”

This example illustrates the enduring quality of some mnemonics, but also indicates one potential problem, i.e., when the ‘mnemonic code’ becomes disassociated from the source material. Some mnemonics may work best when the source material is readily accessible, but merely needs to be structured or sequenced appropriately.

Other forms of well-learned information can also be used to supplement memory for facts or stimuli. For example, musical people may find that by setting particular words to a well known tune, memory for those words can be enhanced. This technique has been used by students for remembering complex sequences (such as biochemical pathways) and for retaining elaborate structural and conceptual frameworks (such as the inter-relationships of different neuroanatomical structures).

And people who are fascinated by numbers sometimes find that strings of digits have rich personal associations. These associations can be stored in long-term memory Opens in new window, making it easier to remember long strings of digits in a series of chunks Opens in new window, rather than as individual digits (assuming, of course, that the to-be-remembered digit strings can be related to the number ‘chunks’ that are already stored in long-term memory).

For example, someone interested in numbers or mathematics may have committed to memory that the first four digits of pi are 3.142, and they may then be able to use this information to help them to code other numbers for subsequent remembering.