Helpful Mnemonics and Essential Memory Aids for Tricky English Language Rules
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
The English language is endlessly baffling.
Not only has it been estimated to contain around three times as many words as the next biggest European language, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the written forms of some of those words were decided by mad sadists, determined to make learning English as time-consuming and difficult as humanly possible. From the word ‘laugh’, pronounced ‘larff’ but spelled with a combination of letters that put one in mind of someone choking on their own tongue (and funnily enough, not too different from the ending of ‘cough’) to the whole host of words infiltrated by a nasty silent letter – what on earth is the g in ‘foreign’ doing? – there are hundreds of words in English to frazzle your brain and send your eyes whizzing round in their sockets. And we haven’t even started on the grammar yet! If you always manage to get the apostrophes in the right places in words like you’re and it’s, and you never end a sentence with a preposition, or start one with conjunctions like ‘and’, you’re doing better than a good deal of adult native English speakers (and me, above!).
Of course, this complexity translates to richness: think of the perfect aptitude of the ugly combination of letters in ‘mawkish’ to describe something falsely over-emotional or sentimental; the innate comedy of words like ‘crapulous’ – uncomfortable from eating or drinking too much – ‘cantankerous’, or ‘curmudgeonly’; the beauty and expressiveness of the Shakespearean neology ‘sea-change’. But it’s undeniable that the process of mastering spelling and grammar in English is a long and difficult one, requiring a great deal of rote-learning, or remembering by heart; it’s not often that you find handily consistent rules, or can simply write things as they sound.
But there are small glimmers of hope, in the form of the huge number of rhymes, mnemonics and memory aids that generations of teachers have devised to help native and non-native speakers alike to remember the rules of English spelling and grammar. Here, we’ve gathered together some of the best.
Know your grammar
A cat has claws at the end of its paws. A comma’s a pause at the end of a clause
One easy way to place a comma in a sentence is just to put it where you’d normally take a breath when speaking. But more precisely, commas should be used to separate subordinate clauses; that is, the parts of a sentence that express information that is secondary to what the main clause says.
For example, take the sentence ‘My grandmother is coming to visit tomorrow’. The whole sentence is composed of one clause; you can’t remove any part of it without losing the sense.
But you can add a subordinate clause to the sentence: ‘My grandmother, who is 72 years old, is coming to visit tomorrow’. The added part or subordinate clause, separated by commas, expresses additional information, and can be removed without sacrificing the sense of the sentence.
Don’t know nothing about double negatives
Double negatives are clauses that contain two negative words expressing the same idea:
‘We didn’t do nothing’ (We didn’t do anything)
‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’ (You haven’t seen anything yet)
‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ (I can’t get any satisfaction)
In many languages, double negatives are common and standard. Think of the Spanish phrase, ‘no pasa nada’, which equates roughly to ‘it doesn’t matter’, but uses the two negatives ‘no’ and ‘nada’ to express a single negative idea.
Double negatives were once standard in English, too, and are still used colloquially, as in the examples above. However, they’re not considered standard; English grammarians hold that two negatives cancel one another out. Therefore the phrase ‘I didn’t do nothing’ actually really implies that the speaker did do something. Avoid double negatives in English in anything but very colloquial language.
The phrase ‘don’t know nothing about double negatives’ is itself a double negative. See if you can work out what it would mean in both colloquial and standard English.
“To boldly go where no man has gone before”
OK, this isn’t a mnemonic or a memory aid, but rather a quotation from the crushingly dull but mystifyingly popular TV series Star Trek. The sentence comprised the opening line of the show’s first episode ever, which caused a stir for more than the hammy alien makeup its actors wore – the line is grammatically incorrect!
Infinitives are hard to define, but are most easily described as the ‘basic’ form of the verb – the un-declined form that will appear in the dictionary. In English, they’re usually prefixed by the word ‘to’; for example ‘to run’, ‘to swim’, ‘to love’.
Some examples of infinitive verbs in English sentences include:
‘I love to dance’
‘She went to Cornwall to visit her friend’
‘I’m trying to learn all about infinitives’
In English, it’s generally considered wrong to split an infinitive – that is, to place a word between the ‘to’ and the verb, as in the sentence with which I opened – ‘to boldly go’.
Grammarians locate the rationale for this rule in the Latin and Old English roots of the English language; in Latin, just as in modern Romance languages like French or Italian, it’s impossible to split an infinitive because the form of the verb is expressed by changing the letters at the end of the word. Thus if I wanted to say ‘I finish’ in Latin, I’d say ‘perficio’, but if I wanted to say ‘to finish’, I’d say ‘perficere’ instead.
In English, the rule against split infinitives is beginning to look a bit outdated; sensible people argue that it’s plain silly to limit ourselves to the grammatical options available to the Romans or the people of the Dark Ages. Really, if we’re so dead set against splitting infinitives, we should go the whole hog and charge about selecting old ladies to be drowned as witches – that is, when we’re not too busy stabbing one another in the Senate house or treating cholera with a frogspawn poultice.
And there are many sentences where it’s clumsy, or even changes the meaning, not to split an infinitive. For example:
Oliver decided to gradually get rid of the books he had collected
‘Gradually’ here splits the infinitive ‘to get rid of’, and is therefore technically incorrect. But moving the adverb is problematic. You could try:
Oliver decided to get rid of the books he had collected gradually
… but that makes the sentence sound like Oliver had collected the books gradually. Or alternatively:
Oliver decided gradually to get rid of the books he had collected
This makes it sound like the decision, rather than the process of getting rid of the books, was gradual. Splitting the infinitive is the only way to express exactly what you mean.
However! It is not for nothing (if you’ll forgive a double negative) that the English are famous for their pedantry. While remembering that the split infinitive rule is essentially very silly, try to avoid splitting infinitives in written sentences.
‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ – but only when it sounds like ‘bee’!
In English words that contain the letters i and e next to one another, the i should usually come before the e. Examples of words that are spelled like this include ‘lie’, ‘fierce’, ‘believe’, ‘die’, ‘achieve’, ‘piece’, ‘yield’ or ‘friend’.
The exception to this rule is when the two letters follow the letter c, and together make an ‘ee’ sound – for example, in words like ‘receipt’, ‘conceive’, ‘ceiling’, ‘conceit’ or ‘deceive’.
When the two letters occur in a word but do not make the ‘ee’ sound, the i comes before the e as usual. Examples of these words include ‘efficient’ or ‘science’
Finally, the rule does not apply to any word where i and e occur together, but don’t make the ‘ee’sound; for example, in ‘beige’, ‘feign’, ‘foreign’, ‘neighbour’ or ‘weight’.
This dessert is sickly sweet
Remember the difference in spelling between the words ‘dessert’ (the delicious ice creamy thing you have after dinner) and ‘desert’ (a bleak place full of camels and cacti; or, to leave a place or person behind and alone) by remembering that only dessert is sickly sweet.
A principal is always a friend
Distinguish between the American word for a headmaster, and ‘principle’, which can mean either ‘main, foremost’ or ‘a fundamental truth or proposition’ by remembering that principal ends in the word ‘pal’, and principals are generally jolly and nice people.
‘Necessary’- one collar and two socks
In spelling the word ‘necessary’, it can be difficult to remember how many c’s and s’s to put- and where. To remember that the single c comes first, think that the collar is on the top of your body and the two socks are at the bottom!
Goofy Greg loved to exaggerate
To remember that ‘exaggerate’ contains two g’s.
I turn really red when my sister sings
Embarrassed that you can’t spell embarrass? Like many words that contain two double letters, the hardest thing about writing the word is remembering how many r’sand s’s it contains, and where they go.
And if you don’t like that one, try an alternative: It’s hard to embarrass really righteous and serious students – or even make up your own!
Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move
The word ‘Rhythm’ is really difficult to spell because it uses no vowels! Cement it in your brain with the mnemonic above.
‘Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY!’
Say this one aloud to remember how many f’s to put in the word ‘difficulty’- and simultaneously, to remember the hilariously aggressive and terrifying Mrs Trunchbull from the movie version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:
Big elephants can always understand small elephants
A wildlife-based memory aid to spell the word ‘because’!
A new environment will iron me out
The hardest thing about the word ‘environment’ is the middle section. Remembering that it contains the whole word ‘iron’ should solve the problem!
That liar looks familiar
The ending of ‘familiar’ can be tricky to work out, because it isn’t really spelled like it sounds. Use the memory aid to keep in mind that it uses all the same letters as the word ‘liar’.
An island is land in the middle of the water
Again, ‘island’ isn’t really spelled like it sounds – but once you’ve remembered that it splits neatly into the two words ‘is’ and ‘land’, you’re sorted!
I alone felt Eli’s loneliness
This one will help you to remember the tricky middle section of the word ‘loneliness’.
It’s truly hot in July
Native and non-native English speakers alike are endlessly confused by the word ‘truly’- I’ve seen ‘truely’ and ‘truley’ pop up in essays more times than I can count! Use this phrase to remember that the word uses the same letters as the month of July.
I have a very vivid memory of total brain-freeze when trying to spell this word once, and rubbing out versions that just didn’t look right so many times I scratched a hole in the page! This is an important one to know though, as the stereotype is true: British people love to queue, and love to talk about queuing even more. I think of the two ue’s queuing up after the q.
It is quite unbelievably impossible to enjoy spelling difficult words
A handy one to help remember how to spell the simple and common, but undeniably difficult word ‘quite’!
If you get confused about when to use ‘affect’ and when to use ‘effect’, remember that the word ‘affect’ describes an action, whereas ‘effect’ describes the end result.
Have you got any great mnemonics or memory aids to remember the rules of English spelling and grammar?