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The Good and Bad of Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are a popular way to learn difficult-to-memorize information, especially facts that otherwise don’t seem connected to each other. They work because they encode the new information with known information or easier-to-remember information, such as rhymes, acronyms, and images. Acronyms like Roy G. Biv and HOMES not only aid memory at the time of learning but can stick with us throughout our lives.

Successful mnemonics encapsulate simple information that has a black-and-white clarity. Once a little gray creeps in, however, mnemonics lose their power, so that shades of meaning are lost or the information is incorrect altogether.

Mnemonics are popular for teaching language lessons, but the editor who relies on them without testing them risks introducing errors into the manuscript. I’ve collected several popular language-related devices below to test their veracity. Which are truly helpful and which lead editors down a false path?

Spelling Mnemonics

Mnemonics are well suited to spelling. Gray areas are few; the device often captures one spelling for one word. The Oxford Royale Academy offers many spelling mnemonics, a few of which are seen in Table 1.

MnemonicExplanation
“This dessert is sickly sweet.”dessert has two s’s
“Goofy Greg loved to exaggerate.”exaggerate has two g’s
“I turn really red when my sister sings.”embarrass has two r’s
Table 1

But what about this one, popular in elementary-school spelling books?

I before e except after c or when it sounds like a, as in neighbor and weigh.

The “i before e” rule works for believe, die, friend, receive, ceiling, receipt, and many other words. But there are also many exceptions (see Table 2).

ancientneithersufficient
feistysciencetheir
glacierseizevein
heightspeciesweird
Table 2

The exceptions are so numerous that they make the mnemonic useless. Editors would do better to rely on dictionaries and spell-check functions instead.

Usage

Mnemonics for remembering usage rules might be more beneficial to editors, as looking up rules can be time consuming. But how many are as good as they seem?

Your Friend the Principal

If you can’t remember whether you should use principal or principle for the person who runs the school, you might use “The principal is your pal.” You can then connect that information with other uses of principal by remembering the principal is the main person in charge of a school. By extension, the principal city in an area is the main city in that area. The definitions are related.

Principle is used for other meanings, such as “a basic truth” and “a key source.” We can see a connection between definitions here, as well: both have a sense of being central or foundational. We can keep this mnemonic.

Effecting a Mnemonic

Have you ever used this mnemonic? 

Affect describes an action, and effect describes an end result.

Definitions for affect and effect are not as tidy as those for principal and principle. Both words have multiple meanings and usages. 

Affect’s most popular usage is “to influence a change.” That’s the action referred to in the mnemonic. But as a verb it can also mean “to falsely appear,” and as a noun it can mean “a feeling or an emotion” or “the appearance of a person’s emotional state.”

Effect’s most common usage is as a noun: “a result,” which the mnemonic points to. But it also can be used as a verb: “to cause to happen.”

As American Heritage Dictionary points out in its Usage Note at affect, “If someone affects something, there is likely to be an effect of some kind, and from this may arise some of the confusion.’

Depending on what you edit, you’re likely to run into any of these secondary definitions, which render the mnemonic misleading, if not completely useless.

Grammar

We tend to think of grammar as falling into the black-and-white category. We want it to be, but it rarely is. And a popular mnemonic demonstrates how difficult that makes using such devices to apply rules.

FANBOYS

The acronym FANBOYS is used (along with some variations) to teach English’s coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

The problem is that for, yet, and so aren’t true coordinating conjunctions. In “The Myth of FANBOYS: Coordination, Commas, and College Composition Classes,” Brett Reynolds, professor of EAP and TESL at Humber College, explains that a word is a coordinating conjunction if it meets the following qualifications:

  • It can’t occur next to another coordinating conjunction.
  • It can’t be modified by another word.
  • It joins two equal parts (constituents) of any size (i.e., words, phrases, and clauses).
  • The order of the two equal parts can usually be reversed (i.e., they’re commutative).
TermCan’t occur next toeach otherCan’t be modified byanother wordJoins all constituentsConstituents arecommutative
and
but
forOnly to specific clause typesNo
nor
or
soCan be paired with and, but, orCan be modified with justOnly to specific clause typesNo
yetCan be paired with and, but, orOnly to
Table 3

As you can see from Table 3, only and, but, nor, and or meet all of the requirements for coordinating conjunctions, while for, so, and yet meet only a few.

If for, so, and yet aren’t coordinating conjunctions but can join certain clause types, what are they? The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) notes that for is similar to the subordinating conjunction because semantically but not syntactically:

The Girl Scouts considered their sale a success, for they had sold every box of cookies.

So and yet are more like conjunctive adverbs, such as however, according to CGEL:

Sara’s car is in the shop, so she will need a ride home.

The final is tomorrow, yet Tom can’t seem to focus on studying.

In other words, even the linguists aren’t sure what for, so, and yet are in this situation. What they aren’t is coordinating conjunctions. So if you’re using FANBOYS to identify equal constituents, you’re being led astray. Editors would be wise to forget FANBOYS.

Syntax

One new-to-me mnemonic I found was “P comes before T.” That is, place adverbials should come before time adverbials in a sentence:

Jane bought a new book at the book fair last weekend. 

An expansion of this rule is that manner comes before place and place comes before time, putting the three in alphabetical order: 

Jane bought a new book secretly at the book fair last weekend.

Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English examines the order in which fiction, news, and academic writing place these adverbials. It concludes that while there isn’t a hard-and-fast grammar rule, there are strong preferences. Table 4 outlines English users’ preferences. A “no preference” indicates fairly equal distribution. For example, manner adverbials occur before time adverbials roughly the same number of times as time adverbials occur before manner adverbials.

AdverbialFictionNewsAcademics
Place before timeStrongly preferredStrongly preferredStrongly preferred
Manner before timeNo preferenceStrongly preferredStrongly preferred
Manner before placeStrongly preferredStrongly preferredStrongly preferred
Table 4

Why do we have a strong preference for a specified order of manner, place, and time adverbials? It’s largely semantics.

Manner and place adverbials are usually more closely related to the verb, so we like to put them as close to the verb as we can. We like longer adverbials to come second and place adverbials tend to be much longer, so we frequently see manner coming before place. Time adverbials often modify the entire sentence, however, and sentence modifiers go to the end of the sentence.

Why, then, do we get so many “dispreferred orders” of time before place, time before manner, and place before manner? Here too there is logic for copyeditors to follow (examples from Longman’s):

  • Longer adverbials are put at the end of the sentence: The seventh film, Asterix and the Big Fight, opened yesterday in the West End.
  • Adverbials with the most important information are put first: He selected a huge armful of mimosa, brilliant yellow and sweetly fragrant, flown in that morning from Nice, he was informed.
  • Adverbials are put in the order of events: He looked at her then, closely.
  • Adverbials that are semantically closest to the verb are put next to the verb: I don’t know if you’re still in Rome.

P before T” is a good mnemonic, then, for English learners, who are learning the most common patterns. But editors are sophisticated English users who must balance expected adverbial order with semantic and rhythmic needs. We’re concerned with substance and subtext as well as the surface. This is another mnemonic to jettison. 

What to Do with Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonics are useful for everyone when the information is simple and straightforward. Roy G. Biv is a great way to remember the colors in the rainbow. “The principal is your pal” really can help you choose the right spelling. 

But many mnemonics related to language either oversimplify a complex situation (P before T) or are flat-out wrong (FANBOYS). These are rarely helpful for the professional editor, who must deal with those complexities on a regular basis.

Before depending on a language mnemonic in your editing, do some digging. You may find the mnemonic will do more harm than good.

This article originally published in the February-March 2018 edition of Copyediting newsletter. 

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