And then she takes that club and …

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Hannah Poturalski, "Basketball legend visits Kenton", Lima News, 6/19/2009:

Thursday evening nearly 70 members of the Ohio State Alumni Club of Hardin County, as well as community members, saw an animated presentation by [Jerry] Lucas on the new way he plans on revolutionizing learning.

Lucas, now 69, said he's been involved in memory training his entire life. As a boy he invented mind games to keep himself entertained.

Through conditioning his mind with new ways to learn and memorize things, Lucas has established the Lucas Learning System. The system focuses on linking visuals with things that don't have an identity, such as pronouns and Arkansas.

To remember a pronoun, Lucas created an image of a Catholic nun with a golf club. She was a professional golf player, hence pro-nun. Lucas ingrains that image in the mind, so every time you hear pronoun, you see the visual.

But wait, I thought,  how does that golfing nun hook up with an antecedent? I had no trouble coming up with a concrete sound-alike for antecedent — "ant a seed ant", two ants fighting over a seed, get it? But I failed to come up with a memorable story to connect the nun and the ants.

So I tried web search, that modern aid to creativity as well as memory. Looking for {nun ant} sent me off on various false trails, including the vernacular spelling of aint and nothing ("You ant seen nun yet dis jus tha beginning!!!!!") and the uncyclopdia article on Vampire Ants (who prey on virgin nun ants).

Looking for things related to nuns and pronouns turned up The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenerism, Lesbian Desire, & Catalina de Erauso ("It seems neither fair nor accurate, however, to use exclusively feminine pronouns to refer to the Nun-Lieutenant, who worked so diligently to make herself into a man"), and also  "The Lucas Learning System Revealed", which asserted again the value of the "sound-alike word system", without explaining what it's good for other than turning a hard problem (learning the words pronoun and antecedent) into another hard problem (making up a memorable story about nuns, golf, ants, and seeds, or whatever):

[I]f you read the list: cat, horse, cow or dog, you will immediately visualize each word as you read it. It’s automatic. Your mind simply develops a mental image. However, intangible words like "pronoun" cannot be visualized. Such words do not create an automatic picture in your mind. Doctor Memory has solved this problem with a sound-alike word system that makes intangible words tangible.

But eventually the web provided an answer, or at least an account of how visualizing a pronoun as a golfing nun could possibly be helpful. Alexander Wolff, "Thanks For The Memory", Sports Illustrated, 6/30/2003, described Lucas's stump speech in more detail:

Audaciously, he has applied visualized learning to even the least concrete concepts. "How many of you have seen a pronoun?" he asks. "If a pronoun ran down the aisle and jumped on this podium, would you say, 'Why, that's a pronoun! I haven't seen one for four days!' "

In fact, Lucas has seen a pronoun and, with the help of an artist, rendered it. She's a golf pro in a nun's habit—a pro nun. She does many things, among them serve on a team of Lucas's devising, the Capitalize Team. Like her teammates she wears a cap graced with elongated eyes (cap-tall-eyes), and there, in a cartoon tableau, she's teeing off on an eyeball. It's an absurd image, but just wacky enough to make us never forget that we capitalize the pronoun I.

Now I get it. No ants, just eyes. Capitalizing I must be more of a problem than I realized.

Still, I'm sceptical that the Capitalize Team is really going to help restore America to grammatical literacy. But wait, maybe the Lieutenant Nun can join Dick Cheney and Joe Biden in a game of pick-up basketball, and straighten out everybody's confusions about the passive vice voice. . . Um, no, never mind.


  1. NW said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 7:59 am

    Not seen a pronoun!? Any skoolboy kno what a pronoun look like, from reading the Molesworth books: here a gerund attacks some peaceful pronouns.

  2. Sili said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    That has always been my problem with these mnemonic systems.

    I'm so devoid of imagination that it's a lot harder for me to make up stories linking object/concepts together than it is to just write them down and or try to learn them by rote.

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    After the pro nun takes a swing on the course, the ball hits a golf cart, leaving an indentation. Then she shows the cart to her golfing partner, who happens to be her mother's sister, and says, "Auntie, see dent!"


  4. jfruh said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Mnemonic systems like this have quite a long history. A good book is The Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci, about a Jesuit missionary in 16th century China. One of the ways he tried to promote Christianity was by also offering instruction in more immediately useful material, including an ancient Roman technique for memorizing long texts by visualizing the various themes as tableaus within a vast building that you were walking through.

    More recently, Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends And Influence People" contains advice on rememebering speeches and people's names based on punny visualizations, quite similar to what's proposed here. (If that seems like a weird thing to be in that book, remember that one of its main audiences is made up of sales professionals, who have to be able to retain the names of dozens of clients and remember spiels in ways that look natural.)

  5. Zwicky Arnold said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Following up jfruh: the classic reference on the history of mnemonic systems is Frances A. Yates's 1966 The Art of Memory.

  6. J. Marshall Unger said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    I devote a chapter on the mnemonics of Harry Lorayne, a representative of the head-magic guild, in my book _Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning_ (University of Hawai'i Press, 2004). Lucas's visualization technique is only one part of Lorayne's system, the core of which is the memorization of a numeric code in which numbers correspond to codewords containing consonant phonemes that "spell out" the digits. One then improvises ridiculous (hence memorable) visual images that link arbitrary given items to codewords, thereby assigning each an ordinal value. With practice, this makes it possible to do some pretty amazing impromptu nightclub routines; however, as I explain, it is a lousy way to tackle memorization tasks associated with second-language learning and the like.

  7. Jason Eisner said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    When I was about 12 (?), someone gave me The Memory Book, by Harry Lorayne (a magician known for card sleights and memory stunts) and Jerry Lucas. I read it with interest and found some of the tricks to work well. I still use them on occasion.

    The book is not crazy. I suspect poor reporting by the Lima News and by Sports Illustrated (which would not surprise anyone here). The "pro-nun" example is uncharacteristically confusing, and is probably incompletely explained. I suspect the reporters picked it to include because it sounded so goofy.

    I'll give two quick examples that may seem more plausible:

    To remember that the French word for grapefruit is "pamplemousse," the book suggested visualizing a moose covered with grapefruit-shaped pimples.
    To remember the combination on my bike lock, I visualized the lock chaining a frantic dog to a computer until he could remember his password. The phrase this triggered was "DOG LOGON," which is a valid encoding of "17572" under the book's scheme for mapping digit sequences to underspecified phoneme sequences. (Another encoding would be "TICKLY CANE," which may help you start to guess the mapping. :-)

    Note that the image contains both things being associated: the grapefruit AND the pimply moose, the bike lock AND the combination. This wasn't very clear in the "pro-nun" example. My guess is that you are supposed to include her as a character in other images where "pronoun" is one of multiple concepts that you're trying to associate. (Mark, here's a little help on that: The nun is spooked mid-swing by a large insect, and her little niece cries out "Auntie see-ed ant!" Works for me, except that it seems silly to both of us to work so hard to memorize words we already know well!)

    It's interesting that decades later, I still remember the pimply moose, the logging-on dog (later to be immortalized in a New Yorker cartoon :-), and others. The book suggests some simple strategies for coming up with images that are actually memorable. I found at the time that it could be done quickly with a bit of practice.

    Mark suggests that this is just turning one hard problem (memorizing the fact directly) into another hard problem (coming up with a mnemonic). However, I am pretty sure that I can store a 10- or 20-digit sequence more quickly and reliably by generating a mnemonic — or better, a few mutually reinforcing mnemonics — than by rehearsing it. In fact, I'd speculate that even the process of *trying* to come up with a mnemonic (even if I stopped before succeeding) might be at least as effective as rehearsal, because it makes me engage with the number in more varied and active ways than rehearsal does. (I may think about the geometric pattern that it forms when dialed on the phone, or note some mathematical relationship among groups of digits, or encode it phonemically to get an image as above.) Retrieval is slower, but after I've retrieved the sequence several times, I start to be able to remember it directly. The mnemonics can still protect against later degradation of the memory; I didn't remember 17572 when I started writing this post (though it now seems familiar again), but I did remember DOG LOGON.

    I could make similar comments about learning foreign-language vocabulary. Once you know enough related words and collocations, then they start to reinforce each other. But when you don't have anything to connect a new word to, it may help to make something up — e.g., an image — to help reinforce it. This is particularly useful when memorizing batches of unrelated words that may interfere with each other.

    (I actually think of this all in terms of recurrent neural nets seeking low-energy states, but that's another story …)

    The Lorayne & Lucas book describes other schemes, to remember faces and associate them with names; to memorize sequences for both sequential access and random access; to count cards; etc. I suspect any book about mnemonics would include some similar techniques. Many are adapted from older techniques — some go back to the orators of ancient Athens, who presumably worshiped Mnemosyne.

  8. Dan T. said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    Way back in grade school they once had me memorize a bunch of words on flash cards, and I came up with silly imagery for some of them; one was "acoustic", for which I thought of a stick going "Coo!". Another was "stucco", which brought to mind a letter "O" that was stuck (it had tried to go through a hole in a fence but it was too big to fit). Those mnemonics must have worked, since I still remember those words 35 years later.

  9. James said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    "If a pronoun ran down the aisle and jumped on this podium, would you say, 'Why, that's a pronoun! I haven't seen one for four days!' "

    I guess they haven't been watching Schoolhouse Rocks:

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    The learning of anatomy in (British, at least) medical schools used to involve lots of mnemonics which by age-old convention had to be obscene. My researches suggest that either political correctness or a tendency to downgrade the hard medical sciences in favour of vague social science has done for this ancient art form, which dates from a better age when the ability to play Rugby football was more likely to get you into medical school than being a ghastly swot.

    As a practical aid they were often not too useful; more than one mnemonic I remember from the anatomy rather than vice versa.

  11. Faldone said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    @ Jason Eisner

    My mnemonic for pi to 35 decimal places is:

    My two rats leap no jelly meal fopcap. My name for John Shar's mama famine kitchen police. Luzon Fifi.

    It's imperfect but I remember the imperfections.

  12. Cameron said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    The work that Dame Frances Yates relies on heavily in her work on memory is now available in English. That would be Logic and The Art Of Memory by Paolo Rossi – it originally appeared in Italian with the title Clavis Universalis.

  13. fiddler said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    In a plant ID class years ago, I turned "Pachysandra terminalis," a medium evergreen groundcover, into "dead elephant" for my study group. I'd taken years of Latin, they hadn't — and they didn't "get it," but they remembered it.

    I'd love to know how song adds to memory skills, as in Fifty Nifty [United States] or the Periodic Table song. I didn't find any LL posts on it; did I miss them?

  14. Lazar said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    I think mnemonics have legitimate uses – for remembering sequences of things, for example – but I've always been a bit incredulous of these overcomplicated, pun-tastical mnemonics that people concoct to remember individual facts, concepts and quirks of usage.

  15. Faldone said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    My pi mnemonic is for entertainment purposes only. For some unfathomable reason I need no mnemonic to remember the mnemonic, nor for remembering what parts of it are imperfect.

  16. Ellen said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    I remember when I was young the TV ad with a picture of an ark sawing a rock and someone saying "the capital of Ark can saw is Little Rock". I'll confess I've never since forgotten the capital (or capitol?) of Arkansas. (Though that may have had as much or more to do with audio repitition than with the visual.)

    I can't see, though, how the golfing nun image is supposed to help someone learn what the word pronoun means, nor anything about pronouns.

  17. John Cowan said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    "On old Olympus's towering top / A Finn and German chased a hop": what's obscene about that?

  18. parvomagnus said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    They only viewed the hop, I think. Indolent lot, Finns and Germans.

  19. Ben F. said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    See, to me, "pronoun" already has a visual link–P-R-O-N-O-U-N. Maybe at this stage in the game, i.e., past the ridiculous sponge-learning years, this stuff just gets confusing. I mean, a pro-golfing nun? This has an entire other set of associations that would just muck up my understanding of both concepts.

    I agree on the "replacing one hard problem with another" issue. I've always been confused by those long mnemonic stories that help you memorize, say, the names of the Presidents or state capitals. For me the biggest problem is that there's typically no narrative to hang on to, so it ends up being some crazy psychedelic fever-deam that's just as difficult to memorize as the capitals by rote. (i.e. the gas station attendent has to *fill more* cups with gas, and on each of those cups, instead of a normal handle, are *pierced* ears…I mean, yikes.)

  20. Andrew said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    The thing that struck me in this report was the claim that pronouns and Arkansas 'don't have an identity'. How is 'identity' being used here?

  21. James C. said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    It seems to me that the psychology trope of different learning styles has something to do with this. I am like Ben F. in that the complicated narrative mnemonics do nothing for me, and I find it easier to simply memorize something directly. But the popularity of narrative mnemonics points towards its being very valuable for some, so there must be some sort of difference that this preference is highlighting.

    The non-narrative sorts of mnemonics, based on acrostics and simple similes, are still useful for me. The best examples I think come from medicine, where vast amounts of memorization are required; has a great collection of them.

  22. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    @John Cowan:

    Ah, but you prove my point: I've never heard your mnemonic for the cranial nerves before, while I (and all doctors at least of my generation and in the UK) know the "to touch and feel" version …

  23. dr pepper said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    What i've always hated about systems like this is that the people promoting them say they can "improve your memory", which is a lie. An improved memory wouldn't need such tricks.

  24. Katherine said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    More of an aid for a poor memory I'd say, dr pepper.

    The one that always worried me was the fact that some people (in highschool) needed a mnemonic to remember the colours of the rainbow. How this was not ingrained from kindergarten I'll never know.

  25. Matt said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    "Tanks for the mammaries . . . " Now, if I could only remember who sang this paean to the brassiere.

  26. John Laviolette said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

    Actually, it *does* improve your memory, just not in the way you'd expect. What helps you remember anything is paying attention to it and linking it to what you already know. The process of making up either visual images or verbal mnemonics is what helps you to memorize the material, and a thorough memory system helps you organize memorized data so that you can recall it when needed. But none of the memory systems I've studied mentions any of that, nor do they mention that their techniques — visual puns, numeric codes, peg lists, memory locii — have been around for thousands of years. They all pretend to have invented a brand-new system.

    My personal experience is that memory systems do work, but the people presenting them go overboard on various elements for marketing reasons. Kevin Trudeau's Megamemory, for example, handled visual puns the same way Lucas is handling it, but in my personal system, I just use abbreviated sounds to jog my memory. I'd recommend that people skip the commercial memory courses and just build-your-own using info from places like the Mentat wiki:

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    dr pepper: What i've always hated about systems like this is that the people promoting them say they can "improve your memory"

    I've often wondered if these memory techniques are a complete scam.

    A classic one is to memorise a list using phonetic association with numbers: 1=bun, 2=shoe, 3=tree, 4=door, 5=hive, etc. So you get a list: aardvark, London, pelican, heretic, linguist, etc. And you make the association: an aardvark eating a bun, a shoe shop in London, a pelican up a tree, a heretic (Martin Luther) nailing his Papal Bull to a door, Geoff Pullum being stung by a hive of bees, and so on. And similarly recalling the play order of a deck of cards, and whatever.

    Yes, it works brilliantly … once. But what about second, third, fourth etc times when you have to over-write the previous associations?

  28. Emily said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

    From what I've read on the matter, these vivid visual mnemonics work better (for some people) than just memorizing plain information precisely because they're vivid, even though they'd seem to contain more information than just a string of numbers. But although I consider myself a visual learner, I found these never really worked for me– it was too much trouble to memorize the correspondences. What works for me, when attempting to memorize a speech or list, is reciting it until it achieves earworm status.

  29. Garrett Wollman said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    MYL quotes Lucas:

    [I]f you read the list: cat, horse, cow or dog, you will immediately visualize each word as you read it.

    This is either complete nonsense or a nigh-tautological triviality, I can't decide which.

  30. Robert said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:02 am

    I know of a mnemonic for pi digits, being the number of letters in each word in a sentence, but I found that I was actually unable to count the letters of a word mentally, without writing down or using my fingers. Whereas memorizing a few numbers is unproblematic.

    One thing people don't realize about physics and mathematics is that it is often possible to avoid memorization by the use of physical principles or proof, respectively. For instance, I never memorized the quadratic formula or the formula for the sum of a geometric series. I was aghast to find people using mnemonics for those subjects because it seems to abolish intuition from the subject.

  31. Catanea said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 4:55 am

    Yeah. I thought it was really cute of Anthony Burgess to suggest we could remember the Russian word by thinking "I'll just get into the CAR AND DASH that off with a PENCIL." Cute, and genuinely memorable, but only because I already knew the word. There is a brand of coloured pencils called Caran d'Ache. I admired his cleverness, but never came up with anything clever myself except inadvertently. I'd like to read more people's experiences.

  32. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    "I think mnemonics have legitimate uses – for remembering sequences of things, for example – but I've always been a bit incredulous of these overcomplicated, pun-tastical mnemonics that people concoct to remember individual facts, concepts and quirks of usage."

    Yeah, this. Visual mnemonics are very good for sequences, – like memorising the order of a deck of cards. But that doesn't seem to be what this story is about. I mean, the original news story gives you no information on what exactly you're trying to remember these words for. I doubt Lucas has any trouble remembering actual pronouns – they're amogn the most common words in English. As for the word "pronoun" – what about it is he trying to remember? Its spelling? Its meaning? How does "pro-nun" help with either?

  33. yello.cape.cod said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    I have a number of books from this fellow's system because my parents attended a demonstration of his and thought I could use some of the math- and language-learning materials for my kids. I would send it to you to take a look but I think I may have tossed it all. The last place I remember seeing the stuff was on top of our piano which we have since disposed of. Anyway, it was CRAP. The "pro-nun" example was not poorly explained or taken out of context. They were all like that. I am trying to remember another example or two, but I can't remember any specifically. I just know I saw that the system would take phrases and try to turn them into the most absurd mental pictures. They were usually a lot more convoluted than the pro-nun was.

    Here's one I can call to mind. To remember the name of Arkansas, imagine am ark (a large boat, like Noah's ark). He has a saw and is trying to cut a can with it. Ark-can-saw. Now to remember the capital imagine when he cuts the can open there is a little rock inside. Little Rock, Arkansas. But this is the example given to pitch the system. It is actually reasonable.

    The ones I have apparently blocked from my mind involve turning math problems and Spanish words and phrases into completely absurd mental images. They were all incredibly convoluted and did nothing helpful. I think a better mental image for math problems would be, you know, something having to do with the numbers involved. I wish I could give you an example but I didn't retain any. I just remember they were mostly absurd.

    And by the way…The Lima News? How did you end up using it as a source for something?

  34. Aaron Davies said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:54 am

    @Katherine: well, no one ever seems to properly explain what "indigo" is (my only referent is brand-new blue jeans, and I was in my late teens before I heard their color described as indigo), and the seven-stripe rainbow is arbitrary numerology anyway. (Newton thought there should be a prime number of colors.) The order isn't terribly apparent (or important, but that's another story) either, in any context other than an actual physical rainbow.

  35. Bob Zuruncle said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    I hew to the opinion that mnemonics are more often useless than not, however . . . Hi HElen, LIttle BEes Buzz Constantly Now Over FLorida NEver NAncy MinG ALways SIng Pretty Songs CLose ARound Kitty CAt. My 8th grade science teacher, Mr. Hammond, drummed this one into my head when I was 12 years old, and 31 years later, should I ever need to remember the first twenty elements in the periodic table in order, I can summon them up without too much trouble. I have absolutely no idea why this is so. It certainly does not bring a coherent image to mind. In fact, this particular mnemonic is completely incompatible with imagery of any sort, in my mind. Maybe the sounds go together in some way that my mouth remembers the feel of. I can only make it work if I say it out loud.

  36. choranic said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    Yep, Mr. Hammond drilled that into my head as well…..but I have had no use for it other than impress the occasional friend.

  37. Jason Eisner said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    @Bob Zuruncle:
    More simply, my 8th grade chemistry teacher taught us to remember the first 19 of those 20 elements just by pronouncing their atomic symbols: "HHeLi BeB CNOF, NeNa MgAl, SiPS ClArK." (I'll spare you the IPA transcription.) I don't think he drummed it into us at all, but the phrase still comes easily to mind all these years later.

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