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. These 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.
Anyone can write an acrostic mnemonic, however, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward guide to the steps involved. This is my process.
I start by looking for shortcuts in the sequence of letters. The months of the year, for example, contain the name ‘Jason’:
January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December
J, F, M, A, M, J, J, A, S, O, N, D
I’ve found that it helps to have a sentence structure in mind as a starting point. The one that I use is something (noun) did something (verb) involving something else (noun).
- Thomas ran a marathon.
- Joan sang a song.
- Bobby wrestled with his brother.
I can add or remove descriptive words depending on how long the acrostic needs to be.
- Athletic Thomas enthusiastically ran the London marathon.
- Musical Joan sang a sad song beautifully.
- Brave Bobby wrestled furiously with his older brother.
Continuing with the months of the year example, I’m going to start at the end and work backwards. Jason D could be Jason Donovan, the Australian singer and actor. That works out brilliantly, using up six letters in a single noun.
With plenty of letters left, I want to use up one or two describing Jason, so I need an adjective beginning with J. I’m going to choose ‘jealous’ for the time being, and given that the letter before that is M, I’m going to expand that to ‘mildly jealous’.
J, F, M, A, mildly jealous Jason Donovan
The next letter (still working backwards) is ‘A’. I could use this as the verb and pick a word like ‘annoy’, or I could leave it as the word ‘a’ and use ‘M’ for the verb. I’ve still got a few letters left, so I’m going to do the latter.
J, F, mocks a mildly jealous Jason Donovan
Now I need a noun. I can try to use both remaining letters and pick a noun with the initials J F, or I can use an adjective and a noun.
Jelly fish mock a mildly jealous Jason Donovan
Judgemental friends mock a mildly jealous Jason Donovan
At this point, I might want to revisit some word choices and see if anything better comes to mind.
Jelly fish menace a meek, jittery Jason Donovan.
That seemed easy. Let’s try another one. These are the planets in order from the sun. I’m including Pluto, even though it is no longer classed as a planet.
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto
M, V, E, M, J, S, U, N, P
Scanning the list for shortcuts turns up the word sun.
Mnemonics don’t have to be perfect; they just need to work, so I can expand SUN to SUNday so long as I’m confident that I’ll be able to decode it properly later. The Sunday Papers is a common UK term for the Sunday newspaper editions, which nicely incorporates the P of Pluto. With five letters left, I think it’s too early to go straight for the verb, instead I’m going to use an adjective to describe the newspapers. After a quick browse of dictionary.com I’m going with jaded.
M, V, E, M, jaded Sunday papers
I’m in good shape so far. I choose malign as my verb and move on.
M, V, E, malign jaded Sunday papers.
With three letters left I have plenty of options, I can use a three-word noun or opt for a shorter noun and describe either the verb, noun or both.
Many vaudeville entertainers malign jaded Sunday papers.
- Look for obvious shortcuts
- Aim for a something does something to something structure
- Work backwards
- Consider the type of word you need based on the number of letters you have left
- Try and use nouns matching more than one letter, such as celebrities and brand names
- It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to work. So don’t be afraid to fudge things a little.