The Acronym and the Mnemonic

Sometimes I think I know English grammar inside and out. Other times, I stumble upon an aide memoire I’ve never heard of.

I was writing a story where I kept typing ‘Thamos’ in error instead of ‘Thomas’. Out of interest, I looked up ‘Thamos’ as I was sure there was someone with that name. There was: it was an 18th-century play called Thamos, King of Egypt.

However, the top search result defined it as an acronym for remembering conjuctive adverbs, namely ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Also’, ‘Meanwhile’, and ‘Otherwise’. The last letter of ‘THAMOs’ is in lowercase and seems intended simply to create a word.

I’ve no idea whether the folks at NoRedInk invented this acronym, but it was news to me. They also go on to give two others: ‘FANBOYS’ is for coordinating conjunctions while ‘SWABIs’ is for subordinating conjunctions.

This started me thinking about acronyms and mnemonics as a memory aid. I’m somewhat ambivalent about them. If carefully crafted, they do their intended jobs.

One that sticks out from high school Chemistry is ‘OILRIG’, meaning ‘Oxidisation is loss, reduction is gain.’ This works well because the initial letters always spell out a sentence with the words in the correct order.

But supposing you wanted to remember something in a non-linear order. Before Pluto was reclassified, you could recite the names of the bodies in our solar system with ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’.

This is great if you wish to name them all, but supposing you wanted to check the order of Uranus and Neptune, it would take a few seconds to find your place, even starting from the beginning.

Another weakness with this type of mnemonic is that you still need to remember the word that each initial letter stands for.

There are better methods. A classic one is the the method of loci – sometimes called a memory palace – using spatial awareness for easier recall. Here’s an academic description by the US National Library of Medicine.

This system is used extensively by Tony Buzan in his educational books. I read one of his publications when I was younger, and it’s a robust method that allows recall of items in any order, but I never persisted with it.

At present, I have no practical use for acronyms like ‘THAMOs’, ‘SWABIs’, or ‘FANBOYS’. However, I am amazed I’ve reached degree-level English without ever encourtering them, and I’m sure they’ll be of use to someone.

From our Correspondents

I started this blog in October 2013 with no real expectation of gaining an regular audience. As I mentioned at the time, it was done as an experiment to make me write more regularly.

Over time, the number of people reading it has steadily increased. Any given week, I can bank on between 4 to 6 people pressing the Like button, and they are all appreciated.

Every so often, I’ll receive replies to my entries. Most often, it’s from my pal Webgirluk, whom I’ve known for nearly two decades from LiveJournal. Then last week, I found a comment from someone I met at a poetry workshop a few years back.

This started me thinking how bad I am at reading others’ entries. I have followed a lot of people over the last eight years, but I rarely have a chance to read their words, let alone comment on them.

I spend a lot of time speaking to writers and organising events, and I wish I could say I’d make the time to read the words of my WordPress contacts, but I can’t make that promise. The best I can offer is that I know they’ll always be there for when it’s possible to read them.

Using Fractals as Illustrations

Regular readers will probably have spotted that each of these blog entries has a pattern as its featured image. Specifically, these are fractals, each generated by a mathematical formula.

It’s long been known that visual content appeals more to users than plain text. However, licencing pictures can be expensive and appropriate public domain images are hard to find. My content is all about writing, which – by its nature – is often plain text.

Instead, I use a program called Xaos for generating these patterns. As I’m not mathematically-minded, I simply use the random image generator, cycling through them until an interesting one appears.

What’s more, it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes. This helps me a lot, as I commonly write or edit my entries up to the last minute.

The main cover picture is my own work, though. A few years ago, I would attend writing classes in the grounds of Barry Mill, a former watermill in Angus, and I captured this wonderful shot of a light over the doorway. I’m unlikely to replace that with a fractal any time soon.

Still Trying and Failing to Read

Just before Christmas, I was involved in a 12-hour Yule readathon, run by a pal from one of my writing groups. The intention was to devote a day to reading, with optional mini-challenges. I did manage to read on that day, but not as extensively as I’d wanted.

Then couple of weeks ago, we re-ran the event. Rather than start any new books, I wanted to make some progress with War & Peace.

I’d left it about halfway through, and I hadn’t touched it in some time. A lot of people think it’s a hard read from the sheer size, but actually, it’s divided into four volumes with chapters no longer than any other novel. You could easily finish a couple before bedtime.

As I jumped straight back into the story and remembered what had happened, I enjoyed it as much as I did the last time I picked it up. But have I touched it again since then? I really want to say yes, but I have not.

The trouble is not finding the time per se, but alloacating it. You see, a lot of what I do in a week is time-sensitive: creating announcements for my groups, writing this blog, keeping up my exercise routine. Reading, alas, doesn’t need to be done by any particular time, so it’s often left behind.

That said, I’m going to make a concerted effort with Mort by Terry Pratchett. On Saturday, I’m again meeting up with the woman who lent it to me about a year ago, and I’d like to be able to return it fully read.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.

Yes We Scan

On this blog a couple of weeks ago, I talked about starting my yearly Fun a Day project. I’m drawing pictures inspired by the years around the Millennium, then publishing each day’s output on my old blog.

However, my that’s only one part of the story. My main activities can be roughly equally divided into:

  • Producing the drawings
  • Writing in my logbook by hand
  • Scanning the above documents to publish them online.

In previous years, the logbook would be displayed on a table at the exhibition, so there was no need to transcribe it. This time, it’s looking likely that we’ll need to exhibit online again, so I’ve been typing up my words in plain text to make them readable to others.

I soon found it was time-consuming to type up each day’s entry, so I wondered whether there might be a way to use automatic handwriting recognition. There is, and I already had the means of doing it.

Google Drive has a function that turns your phone camera into a scanner. The resulting PDF file can then be opened by Google Docs as text.

Logbook entry dated 12 Jan 2021 being scanned by Google Drive.

Some correction is always necessary, to a greater or a lesser extent, but most errors can be cleared up by using a spell-checker. Even a bad scan is marginally quicker to fix than typing the whole entry from scratch.

I don’t think I’m going to use this technology day-to-day, though. When I write by hand, I normally copy it into the computer by hand so I can make revisions on the fly. For a job that needs to be done quickly, however, it’s a great solution.

Cobbled Together

I’ve had little time to put together a full entry, but there is something I want to show you.

A few weeks ago, I attended writing workshops run by the poet Imogen Stirling, who took the theme of the lockdown as inspiration for her prompts. I’m pleased to report that the amalgamation of the work done by the class has been featured in The Scotsman Sessions.

It was a pleasure taking part in these classes because that’s exactly how I started writing a decade ago: here’s a prompt, and you’ve got five minutes to write something inspired by it.

Come to think of it, that’s much how this entry has been put together.

A Living Document

Last week, I mentioned that I’m not a lifelong fiction writer nor poet, having started in 2010. However, I had kept a non-fiction blog for some years before this.

Although WordPress was around in 2003, the most popular blog host at the time was LiveJournal, known among its users as LJ. My first entry was on 19 December of that year, when I was studying at what is now the University of the West of Scotland, although my profile has – for some reason – always said my account was created on 15 March 2004.

I was reminded of my these days though my pal Katy Jones, who not only joined a year or two before me, but still uses it. She was interviewed for a podcast recently, in which she spoke about the appeal of LJ compared to other sites.

However, we’d actually become acquainted through a media forum, entirely separate from LJ, as we were active in different hospital radio stations around the same time. In fact, we’ve never met and I don’t think we’ve spoken by phone or video chat, yet Katy remains one of my most enduring online friendships. We might even be starting pen-pal correspondence soon.

So what of my old LJ account? It still exists, and it served as a good sandbox in which to practice for this WordPress blog, which began in 2013. At that time, the paid-for features of LJ matched the free features of WordPress, so it was an obvious choice to switch for me.

By this time, I’d more or less established my current style, as seen in an alliterative LJ entry from 2013 documenting my transition. My last detailed entry there was a look-back in December 2015. There are earlier entries that still stand up to reasonable scrutiny, like this entry from May 2004.

But there were also duds along the way, like this one that’s disjointed and uninteresting, asking a question about football and then rambling about Firefox and the bit-rates of MP3 files. Years later, we see a desperate attempt to keep the LJ page alive with tedious #MusicMonday entries.

So one thing I’ve learnt over the years is to look at my entries from outside of my own head. If a topic only makes sense to me, then there’s no point in making it public.

Judging by the reactions and the viewing statistics I receive from this WordPress page, I do manage to engage people. I can even look back at entries from six years ago and still be satisfied with them, other than spotting an occasional sentence that needs rephrasing.

I do hope I’ll be able to read this in May 2026 and feel the same way.