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Simple steps to writing a basic mnemonic device (an acrostic)

Acrostics are the most common mnemonics that we encounter in day to day life. A good example is the sentence ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’, which is used to remember the colours of the rainbow — the first letter of each word corresponds to the first letter of a colour.

Anyone can write a mnemonic, however, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward guide to the steps involved. So here’s the process that I’d recommend.

Before we start, you’ll need to know a few bits of terminology that you might have forgotten since you last fell asleep in an English class.

A very brief grammar recap

  • Noun: an object or thing
  • Verb: a doing word (studying, for example)
  • Adverb: a word that describes a verb
  • Adjective: a word that describes a noun

If you consider a sentence to be like an action movie, the star of the show is called the ‘subject’, and the action that takes place is called the ‘predicate’. So in the sentence:

The Revision Guy wrestles an alligator.

‘The Revision Guy’ (that’s me!) is the subject, and ‘wrestling an alligator’ is the predicate.

Writing your first acrostic

Acrostics are excellent mnemonic devices, however, they are mainly suited to short lists of between five and ten items, where most begin with different letters. If you have fewer items, you may want to try an acronym, whereas lists with more items are better suited to a more advanced approach, such as a link or peg mnemonic.

As my example, I’m going to use the planets of the solar system, in their order from the sun:

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Earth
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • Uranus
  • Neptune
  • Pluto (which is no longer technically a planet)

Step one

Write out the first letters of each word in your list. Split the letters into two roughly even groups. In the final sentence, the first group will form the subject and the second group will form the predicate.

group one: M, V, E, M
group two: J, S, U, N, P

Step two

List any nouns related to the subject of the mnemonic which begin with the first and last letters of each group. It can be helpful to use the ‘browse’ function of an online dictionary for ideas. If the list items are not in a fixed order, the noun can begin with any of the letters in the groups. This is so that your mnemonic will relate to its subject and spring to mind more easily when you’re trying to remember the list.

Moon, Martian, Meteorite, Meteorologist, Planet

Step three

Choose a noun or pronoun (preferably from your list) to match either the first or last letter of group one.

Martian

Using the first word in a group as a noun is trickier than using the last word. You will often need to use a conjunction and these are fairly limited. For example:

‘Daniel, the hairy astronaut.’ as opposed to: ‘Hairy astronaut Daniel.’
‘Lizards from outer space.’ as opposed to: ‘Outer space lizards.’

Step four

Try to devise a list of adjectives, or a phrase to act as an adjective from the other letters in group one that will fit with your chosen noun.

Many Venomous, Evil (Martians)

Step five

Choose a verb to match either the first or last letter of group two.

Painting

Step six

Try to devise a phrase to act as an adverb from the other letters in group two that makes sense with your verb.

Just Sit Until Noon (Painting)

This should leave you with your final acrostic mnemonic device.

Many Venomous, Evil Martians Just Sit Until Noon Painting.

Nothing will fit?

  • Can you rearrange the letters?
  • Can you swap any of the words for synonyms that begin with different letters?
  • Can you reverse the order of the letters?
  • What happens if you change the split of letters between each group?

The sentence structure is just a suggestion to get you thinking. Look at the letters of a group on its own and see if anything springs to mind.

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