Here is a paragraph explaining Procedural Memory (from the TOEFL exam)

The memories people form when they learn names and facts are different from the memories they form when they learn how to perform a task.These memories of performing particular actions are called procedural memories. Procedural memories are memories of the process of performing a task that become automatic with practice. Once a task has been practiced, or repeated many times, procedural memories are established. These procedural memories allow people to perform the action automatically and to recall it relatively easily many years later.

So the focal word is memories; memories become automatic with practice.

But can I write:

Procedural memories are memories of the process of performing a task that becomes automatic with practice.

I want to write this because "a task that becomes" looks better to me, also because maybe a task can become automatic?

3 Answers 3


You could probably go either way, but I agree with you. I think it should be:

Procedural memories are memories of the process of performing a task that becomes automatic with practice.

It's not the memories that become automatic, it's the "process of performing a task" that becomes automatic with practice. But I suppose "the memories of the process of performing a task" could become automatic, too.

I'm not sure if they put things like this on an exam on purpose or if they don't go back and read the exam questions from a student's perspective.


Grammatically speaking both interpretations are possible.

The same applies if we look at it from a general point of view.

I agree with you that "tasks becoming automatic" makes more sense than "memories becoming automatic".

In fact, the exact definition of such memories is "implicit and unconscious" memories that make it possible to "automatically produce the activity". It's the activity/task which becomes automatic, not the memory. Problem is... the loose term "automatic memory" is in common use.

To sum up, we are in a grey area here. I would consider both interpretations correct even if I prefer yours.

Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia: (The emphases are mine.)

Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory (unconscious, long-term memory) which aids the performance of particular types of tasks without conscious awareness of these previous experiences.

Procedural memory guides the processes we perform, and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills, from tying shoes, to reading, to flying an airplane. Procedural memories are accessed and used without the need for conscious control or attention.

Procedural memory is created through procedural learning, or repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity.

  • I don't believe it is the task which becomes automatic, but the memories of how to perform the task which become automatic. The paragraph is explaining how the memories themselves are different. I do agree there is room for interpretation but I don't think it's really that ambiguous. May 6 at 20:08
  • @DarrenRinger I don't think it's really that ambiguous either, but I draw the opposite conclusion from yours. I think the thing that is automatic in "automatic with practice" is the same thing that is automatic in "perform the action automatically" two sentences later.
    – David K
    May 6 at 23:02

I believe that sentence is not constructed correctly.

As @swmcdonnell says, it's actually talking about the memories of the process. But "process" should be plural, because we have a single memory of each process, and many memories of different processes. So it should be "memories of processes":

Procedural memories are memories of the processes of performing tasks that become automatic with practice.

  • Thanks for highlighting this issue. I was disconcerted by it too. It seems to me that your revision avoids the awkwardness in the original text.
    – joy2020
    May 6 at 16:35
  • 1
    I think when it comes to writing like this, even native speakers may have difficulty deciding how it should be written. But I agree with this interpretation.
    – David K
    May 6 at 23:05
  • 1
    Yes, it's very easy to lose track of the references, and people don't really care that much about agreement when speaking.
    – Barmar
    May 7 at 0:09

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