Memory and remembrance

A RyR member was asking me about these two words recently. In particular, she was wondering whether we say ‘a society’s collective remembrance of events’, or ‘collective memory’ (the answer is memory).

Here are some more thoughts about memory vs remembrance.

The first and most important distinction to remember is that remembrance describes an act or behaviour.

Remembrance and commemoration

Remembrance is the act of remembering and showing respect for someone who has died, or a past event.

For example:

A church service was held in remembrance of the victims of the arena bombing.

Here are some examples from the press:

Every year, walkers from all over the north join members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club on a trek up Great Gable in remembrance of those who have lost their lives in conflict.

If you wear a red poppy this year, it will mean something different. The Royal British Legion has said that the symbol that has long represented remembrance of the UK’s armed forces will also stand for civilian victims, not just of war, but terrorism too.

The 11th November is called Remembrance Day in the UK.

If you want to talk about a ceremony or ritual to honour and remember someone, use the verb commemorate. Commemorations are often held on the anniversary of someone’s birth or death; or they can honour an event, like a war, in which case they are often held on the anniversary of the event (or its beginning or end).


A tangible way to honour a famous individual or remember an important event is to erect a memorial.

A memorial is a large object, often made of stone, dedicated to the person or event you wish to remember.

Many villages in the UK have a war memorial, for example.

Here are a few adjectives that are often paired with the word memorial:

  • a lasting memorial
  • a permanent memorial
  • a fitting memorial to…

We talk about building a memorial to the fallen/those who have disappeared etc.

The word memorial is also used as a shortcut for ‘memorial service’, i.e. a ceremony to remember someone who has died, usually taking place after the burial.


Memory means two things:

  1. the ability to remember
  2. something you remember from the past

Let’s talk first about the ability to remember. We use memory, in this sense, with the preposition for:

I have a terrible memory for names.

Here are a few typical adjectives that go with memory. Some of them are clearly more colloquial than others:

  • good
  • excellent
  • outstanding
  • prodigious
  • bad
  • poor
  • terrible
  • awful
  • unreliable

Exercise 1

Let’s say you take your children to a fair, and you suddenly pass a truck selling candyfloss. This reminds you of all the times your parents took you to fairgrounds as a child.

Do you have a pen and paper? You have two minutes to write down all the verbs and phrases you can think of that carry this meaning of ‘reminding you’ of the past.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • it jogged my memory
  • it brought back memories
  • the memories came flooding back
  • it conjures up memories

I also thought of ‘it evokes memories’. This is more formal, though.

Now let’s look at a memory as something you remember from the past.

Exercise 2

Can you think of four adjectives that go with the word memory and that mean the opposite of ‘transient’?

The adjectives I had in mind were:

  • lasting memories
  • abiding
  • enduring
  • lingering

Exercise 3

How many other adjectives can you list that go with the word memory (meaning ‘something you remember’)?

How about

  • vivid memories
  • distant memories
  • dim
  • hazy
  • vague
  • affectionate
  • fond
  • good
  • happy
  • lovely
  • nostalgic
  • pleasant
  • precious
  • sweet
  • warm 
  • wonderful
  • bittersweet
  • bad
  • disturbing
  • embarrassing
  • painful
  • sad
  • traumatic
  • unhappy
  • unpleasant
  • childhood memories


Recollection is a more formal word than memory, but it has the same two meanings.

  1. something you remember:

I have many pleasant recollections (=memories).

The following example illustrates the difference in register:

I have no recollection of the incident.

A less formal version would simply be ‘I don’t remember what happened.’

  • 2. the ability to remember

His powers of recollection are second to none.

Note that when we mean someone’s ability to recall information, we talk about their powers of recollection and not simply their ‘recollection’. So where we would say ‘He has an excellent memory’, we don’t say ‘he has an excellent recollection’, but rather ‘he has excellent powers of recollection’.

You can use the same adjectives with recollection as with memory: clear, distinct, vivid, dim, hazy, vague, faint…

Finally, a useful idiom: ‘to the best of my recollection’.

Exercise 4 – idioms

This exercise has two versions, one easier than the other.

For the harder version, I will give you definitions/explanations/paraphrases of several idioms. You have to try to come up with the idiom. Hint: they all contain the word memory.

  1. if I remember correctly
  2. let’s talk about something that took place in the past, let’s go back in time
  3. to have an excellent memory
  4. an event that has taken place recently or within someone’s lifetime
  5. I will never forget this event
  6. to have a terrible memory

  1. ‘if memory serves’, or ‘if my memory serves me right/correctly’. This is a very useful idiom in meeting situations. Personally, I use ‘if memory serves’, because it’s shorter and you’re less likely to make mistakes!
  2. let’s take a walk/stroll/trip down memory lane
  3. to have a memory like an elephant
  4. within living memory (or within recent memory). For example: ‘He actually apologised?! That hasn’t happened in living memory!
  5. This event is engraved/etched on my memory
  6. to have a memory like a sieve

Easier version of exercise 4

Match the idiom to the explanation or paraphrase.

if I remember correctly
it is etched on my memory
let’s talk about something that took place in the past, let’s go back in timeto have a memory like a sieve
to have an excellent memoryif memory serves
an event that has taken place recently or within someone’s lifetimein living memory
I will never forget this eventlet’s take a trip down memory lane
to have a terrible memoryto have a memory like an elephant

if I remember correctly if memory serves
let’s talk about something that took place in the past, let’s go back in time let’s take a trip down memory lane
to have an excellent memory to have a memory like an elephant
an event that has taken place recently or within someone’s lifetime in living memory
I will never forget this event this event is etched on my memory
to have a terrible memory to have a memory like a sieve

Exercise 5

Can you rewrite this short text in a more formal register?

I have lots of happy memories of Blackpool, but last time I went there something awful happened. A car ran me over. I don’t remember what happened at all, but everything that happened afterwards, including my long hospital stay, will stay with me forever. Now every time I smell fish and chips, it brings everything back.

There is no single answer, but here is one suggestion:

I have many pleasant recollections of Blackpool, but on my last visit, something dreadful occurred. A car knocked me over. I have no recollection of the incident, but the aftermath, including my long hospital stay, will remain etched on my memory forever. Now the smell of fish and chips always evokes bad memories.

UK’s education system

This is a slightly different post from the usual, since I’ll be going through a bit of history and giving you some explanations about the UK’s education system.

First things first, by the way: do we say education system or educational system?

My instinct is that it should be education system, because educational system describes a system that is educational (=pedagogical), but isn’t necessarily the school system. For example, you could perhaps argue that a mentoring system is an educational system (i.e. it teaches the participants something). For me, the school + university system is ‘a system of education’, i.e. the education system.

However, this distinction is a little pedantic, and I began to wonder if there was a British English vs American English difference, so I did a little more digging.

If you look at the two Google ngrams below (showing the frequency of use of the two terms in written sources), you will see that in American English, the two terms are used virtually synonymously, whereas in British English, there was a shift in the 1980s, when education system took over and became the more common term.

‘education system’ (blue) vs ‘educational system’ (red) in American English
‘education system’ (blue) vs ‘educational system’ (red) in British English

This also explains why I haven’t heard educational system used here in the UK: I’m too young (for once!). 🤣

To sum up: if you want to stick to British English, use education system; if you’re speaking American English, use either.

Now to some interesting (and sometimes tricky) questions about terminology.

Public school vs private school

This is a very confusing area.

In American English, ‘public school’ means ‘run by the State’. This is what we would call ‘State school’ in the UK.

In the UK, a ‘public school’ is actually an independent (usually secondary) school, i.e. it isn’t run by the government. Public schools are fee-paying, i.e. they can be equated to ‘private schools’ in other countries.

Why are they called ‘public’? In the 18th century, the reputation of some schools that taught academic subjects such as Latin and Greek spread, and these schools opened their doors to pupils whose parents could afford residential fees. In this way, the schools ceased to be local and therefore became known as public.

The UK has many public schools, some of which are boarding schools as well as accepting day pupils.

A side note: fees at top public schools are exorbitant. I spent a year at Sevenoaks school in Kent, taking A-levels. I’ve just looked up the fees:

Standard Fees

 Per termPer annum
Day Pupil£8,340£25,020

Compare the annual fee for boarders, at around £40,000, with the median salary in the UK: £25,971.

Grammar school

Now, what I didn’t mention in my explanation above, was that these academic schools teaching Latin and Greek were known (since the 16th century) as grammar schools.

[By the way, don’t confuse this with the term ‘grammar school’ in the US, which apparently is a synonym of ‘elementary school’ (or what we in the UK would call ‘primary school’) – confused yet??]

The modern version of grammar schools has existed since the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education after the age of 14 free.

Under this Act, secondary education was divided into two types of schools:

  • grammar schools, which were selective and academically rigorous, and to which pupils could be admitted at the age of 11 if they passed an exam called the 11+ (‘eleven plus’) – but only if there were sufficient places at the school. The idea behind these schools was that pupils would go on to higher education.
  • ‘secondary moderns’, which prepared pupils for trades.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Labour politicians and educational egalitarians argued that the grammar school system reinforced class divisions and middle class privilege, and that all pupils should be taught together.

In 1965, the government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools and secondary moderns, and replace them with ‘comprehensive schools’, i.e. secondary schools that accept all pupils, regardless of ability or aptitude.

There are no longer any secondary modern schools.

Grammar schools disappeared rapidly between 1968 and 1980, but they stubbornly persist in some parts of England, particularly in counties like Kent, Lincolnshire, and Buckinghamshire, and in some areas around Birmingham.

As it happens, there are a few grammar schools in Yorkshire, where I live, and both of my children are at single-sex (🙁) grammar schools.

There are now 164 grammar schools in England and 69 in Northern Ireland (out of 3,000 State secondaries). There are no State grammar schools in Wales or Scotland.

Grammar schools are selective State schools in England and Northern Ireland to which pupils are admitted on the basis of an exam taken in the last year of primary school called the 11+.

I could spend a long time discussing the pros and cons of grammar schools. On the one hand, they generally provide a very good standard of education, being academically rigorous and focused on high standards of discipline. Proponents argue that they promote social mobility, since they accept pupils based on ability, and not the ‘postcode lottery’ of catchment area (i.e. rich parents being able to buy a house in the catchment area of a good State school). Detractors argue that they perpetuate class divisions, and that rich parents can afford expensive coaching to get their children through the exam (children who then may not even be able to keep up with the demands of the curriculum).

I was certainly quite shocked when I discovered 99% of children attempting the 11+ in my local area were being coached, at a cost of £5,000 per year. I thought the test was a test of ability, not a test of how rich your parents were, and how well your coach had prepared you for the exam…🙁

The name ‘grammar school’

Now, because nothing is ever simple in the UK’s education system, you may recall that I said there were no State grammar schools in Wales or Scotland.


Some schools retain the name ‘grammar school’, while actually being non-selective, with no special status.


One of the schools near us is Bradford Grammar School, which is in fact an independent (i.e. public, i.e. private 🤣), fee-paying, school.

In other words, some schools calling themselves grammar schools are NOT selective, and others are NOT State schools.

Told you it was confusing.

The moral of the story is: regardless of what a school calls itself, you have to check whether it’s a State school, selective grammar school, or public school.

As far as translating the term ‘grammar school’ is concerned, given the terminological morass in which we find ourselves, I think your best option is to say ‘selective’, or ‘where pupils are admitted based on ability/exam results’.