Memorize with Acronyms, not Alliteration

To memorize a collection of words or concepts, it can help to form a familiar word out of the first letters, making an acronym like HOMES for the five Great Lakes of North America:

  • Huron
  • Ontario
  • Michigan
  • Erie
  • Superior

For another example, I still remember the order of the four stages of mitosis from high school biology (“Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telophase”) by remembering that their first letters in reverse order spell “TAMP.”

Another popular choice of mnemonic, if you have wiggle room in your word choice, is to express the concepts using alliteration: words that all start with the same letter or sound. Hearing three elementary school subjects referred to as “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic” was probably the first time I encountered this idea, but once you notice them, they’re everywhere. (“The 5 M’s of advertising” are Mission, Money, Message, Media, and Measurement. “The 4 D’s of bystander intervention” are Direct, Distract, Delegate, and Delay. “The 3 C’s to avoid in the covid-19 pandemic” are Crowded places, Closed spaces, and Close-contact settings, and so on.)

I find that it’s easier to make a mnemonic using alliteration than using an acronym, but acronyms are easier to use once you have them. Here’s why:

Alliteration is relatively easy to make because you can pick a likely-looking letter, see whether you can make everything on that list fit that letter, and if you can’t make it work try again with another letter. On the other hand, to make the initial letters fit a word you have to simultaneously think about the possible initial letters you can make, what order you’ll put them in, and what words exist that you could be creating.

However when you go to use the mnemonic, it’s alliteration that’s harder. I just mentioned the three D’s of bystander intervention: delegate, direct, delay, and… something else. Which one did I forget? Alliteration means you’re using the same cue (“it starts with D”) to trigger different responses at different times (the fourth D is “distract”), and that weakens the cue-response relationship. However, with an acronym of all different letters, each cue is different and has its own response (“H” for Huron, “O” for Ontario, etc.) and the acronym itself is still easy to remember if it’s a single, familiar word (“HOMES”).

If the acronym does contain repeated letters, some contamination between the cues can sneak back in. Chip and Dan Heath’s acronym for remembering the principles in Made to Stick are to tell “Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories,” nearly spelling out the word SUCCESs. But while I can remember the “Simple, Unexpected” and “Emotional Stories” parts, I’ve had a much harder time remembering both “Concrete” and “Credible” — I can usually get one, but I forget the other.

So my advice is, if you really need a mnemonic for remembering a list of concepts, resist the urge to phrase them alliteratively: it’s relatively easy, but harder to use later if it’s important that you remember the whole list. Instead, see if you can make an acronym, preferably using all distinct letters. If you succeed, in the long run each use will save you effort.

Do you have helpful mnemonics you use, acronyms or otherwise? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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