Mnemonics: spelling and those dreaded lists

exclamation mark in fire; just right for mnemonicsMnemonics for spelling

Mnemonics, as a word, is no advert for English spelling. And English spelling most certainly needs help. What’s the point of that silent M at the start? (Blame the Greeks. Their spelling isn’t easy either.)

English spelling (and pronunciation) may well be the world’s worst. How many students, trying to learn English as a foreign language, have been flummoxed by:
through, thorough, cough, enough, hiccough, sough, dough?

I often have problems with words where changing the spelling changes the meaning: practise/practice and the like. The spellchecker is no help to me with that, of course.

My regular bugbear is affect/effect. I have to stop to work out which is correct when I’m writing.
The Oxford Dictionary tells me that affect and effect are quite different in meaning, though frequently confused. (A statement of the bleedin’ obvious?)Baldrick has a cunning plan

Affect is primarily a verb meaning “to make a difference to”, as in “their gender need not affect their career”Effect, on the other hand, is used both as a noun and a verb, meaning “a result” as a noun, or “to bring about a result” as a verb.

Hmm. Complicated.

But — like Baldrick — I have a cunning plan, provided by Dame Isadora. Thanks to Pedantique-Ryter, I don’t have to go back to the dictionary to work out which spelling to use.

Pedantique-Ryter Tip: Use Mnemonics to get spelling right

Head of a Raven closeup by Stephencdickson

By Stephencdickson
[CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

To get affect/effect right, I use the
mnemonic RAVEN which stands for
Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun.

And yes, I do know that effect can also be a verb, but it’s usually the noun that confuses me, so this mnemonic really helps. Of course, it only works if you know the difference between nouns and verbs.

But I’m sure you do.
You read Dame Isadora too, don’t you?
(Hint: it’s in this Pedantique-Ryter blog.)

Mnemonics for remembering lists

Mnemonics are very useful for remembering lists of things, too, especially if you’re going to be involved in quizzes and the like. I don’t do them much myself but I do yell at the TV when University Challenge is on. (I don’t yell at Only Connect though; I’m useless at that.)

Some of the mnemonics are great fun. What about these:

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain (Colours of the Rainbow)

  • rainbow of 7 Newtonian colours or is it 6?Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Indigo
  • Violet

Actually, it’s difficult to distinguish Indigo from Violet by eye. And at school we learned about 6 colours: 3 primary [red, yellow, blue] and 3 secondary [orange, green, purple].alchemy with smoke and chemicals

So why turn 6 into 7 by dividing purple? It seems Newton declared Indigo and Violet to be separate parts of the spectrum because 7 was a mystic number.
Newton was a great pioneer of science but he was also into the occult and alchemy.

Close up, the colours in the rainbow are infinite, scientists tell us. 

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (Order of the planets, including Pluto)

night sky with stars and planets

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Earth
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • Uranus
  • Neptune
  • [Pluto]

if you prefer the latest science that excludes Pluto from the list of planets, change Nine Pizzas to Noodles in the mnemonic. (Educated Mother serving Noodles? Proper ones, I fervently hope, rather than the Pot Noodles that students are rumoured to live on. And Nine pizzas? Nine?)

Favourite Mnemonics

Do you have a favourite mnemonic? This is my favourite among the list mnemonics, because it conjures up such a vivid picture. (Also because it’s so useful for University Challenge.)

Here He Lies Beneath Bed Clothes, Nothing On, Feeling Nervous. Naughty Maggie Always Sighs, ”Please Stop Clowning Around” (Symbols for first 18 elements of the Periodic Table)

  • old alchemy laboratoryH Hydrogen
  • He Helium
  • Li Lithium
  • Be Beryllium
  • B Boron
  • C Carbon
  • N Nitrogen
  • O Oxygen
  • F Fluorine
  • Ne Neon
  • periodic tableNa Sodium
  • Mg Magnesium
  • Al Aluminium
  • Si Silicon
  • P Phosphorus
  • S Sulphur
  • Cl Chlorine
  • Ar Argon

Alternatively, you could always learn the song of the elements by Tom Lehrer which is even more fun and includes all the elements in the table that were known when he wrote it in 1959. It’s sung to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

Lehrer’s elements aren’t in the order of the periodic table, but you can’t have everything, can you? He does manage to get through all his 102 elements in less than 90 seconds. He doesn’t even run out of breath before the end — nearly, but not quite — as you can hear on this archive recording.

Do you have a favourite mnemonic to add to mine? Please share. We need their help 😉

Joanna Maitland, author


14 thoughts on “Mnemonics: spelling and those dreaded lists

  1. Jan Jones

    My planet one is:
    My Very Easy Method Just Shows Us Nine Planets (because to me there will always be a Pluto)

    And, of course, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour for the notes on the lines of the treble clef.

    Also Never Eat Shredded Wheat for the clockwise compass directions

    I’m sure there are more…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Like your Planets mnemonic, Jan, though I hadn’t heard that one before. I’m sticking with Nine Pizzas though, because it’s so ridiculous. And yes, I’d forgotten the treble clef, though I recall being taught it when I was at school.

  2. lesley2cats

    Every Good Boy Deserves Fun (sorry, Jan), and I have Tom Lehrer on iTunes and old fashioned LP. When he’s singing it, I can keep up for a little way, but run down like a clock after a few minutes….

    1. Joanna Post author

      I can’t keep up with Tom Lehrer either, Lesley, but it’s still fun to listen to him. I still laugh every time I hear Poisoning Pigeons in the Park 😉

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I find ‘A quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs’ useful if I need a sentence which contains every letter of the alphabet. Though I can’t remember now why I might need to it!.

    1. Joanna Post author

      When I was learning to touch type, that was a sentence I typed many times, to prove that I could do all the letter keys.

  4. Jan Jones

    That used to be used to check that all the keys on a typewriter were printing clearly, Elizabeth. My daughter recently told me of a far better and more efficient one:
    Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow!

    Shame no one has typewriters any more, really.

    1. Joanna Post author

      The Sphinx one is new to me, Jan. And I did keep a typewriter for a long time. Eventually it went, though. Lack of space and I couldn’t get spares for it.

  5. Sue McCormick

    I don’t have many mnemonics and all are covered here with some new to me.

    I DO have a comment on colors. The Primary/Secondary thing is pigments — Mixing colorants. The 7 colors is light refraction. People doing stage lighting are about the only people who mix light.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for that, Sue. I do see what you mean. Of course, scientists tell us the colours of the rainbow are actually infinite, rather than Newton’s seven.

  6. Elizabeth Bailey

    Love the elements song. Brilliant. No way am I going to attempt to remember that. I also did Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and wasn’t it All Cows Eat Grass? Not sure if that’s keys or something else.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I vaguely remembered All Cows Eat Grass but couldn’t remember what it was. Duck-ducked it (I don’t use Google; I use Duck Duck Go which doesn’t track my data) and discovered it’s the white spaces in the bass clef. Sort of parallel to Every Good Boy…

  7. rolandclarke

    Some of these are so useful that I must invent a mnemonic to remember where I’ve filed this. (My memory at 65 with a neurological disease is terrible.) I learnt the fox one when I was using a typewriter.

    I’m writing a police procedural with a detective who uses mnemonics to remember clues. (RAVEN = Revenge Arbour Victim Embezzlement Narcotics – of course.)

    1. Joanna Post author

      That’s a different use of my RAVEN mnemonic and a great trick for a detective to use. Makes your detective stand out from the crowd, too. And welcome to Libertà.

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