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I want to express the idea that I'm really bad at recollecting something from my memory, but "I have a bad memory" sounds a lot like I remember (maybe fairly well) something bad that happened to me.

Related: Is "memory power" or "memory" used by native speakers

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    "I have a poor memory" is less ambiguous, but in context "I have a bad memory" probably won't be misinterpreted either.
    – towr
    Jun 22 at 5:47
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    Just say you have a selective memory. ;)
    – CodeAngry
    Jun 22 at 7:56
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    I have a bad memory is perfectly idiomatic to me in the sense you want. I wouldn't think of interpreting it any other way unless it was part of a conversation about painful memories of the past. Jun 22 at 8:04
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    In an informal setting I would say it's common to just say "My memory sucks"
    – Ivo
    Jun 22 at 13:21
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    Or even "I am bad at remembering things".
    – Andy
    Jun 22 at 13:59

7 Answers 7

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Of course you can say:

  • I am bad at remembering things. ;-(

But more commonly, you use:

bad/poor/terrible memory

  • A student with a poor memory may struggle in school.

And if you have a really bad memory:

a memory/mind like a sieve

  • I have a memory like a sieve.

Also:

The word memory has the double meaning of:

someone’s ability to remember things, places, experiences etc

vs

something that you remember from the past about a person, place, or experience

So:

I have a bad memory. = I am bad at remembering things. (= a poor ability to remember things in general)
Versus:
I have bad/terrible memories of my stay in India. ( I remember bad things...)

Some of the examples are from Longman Dictionary

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  • Just fyi, I am more familiar with the sieve expression being "I have a head like a sieve".
    – Eric Nolan
    Jun 22 at 10:01
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    I jokingly tell people, "I have a memory like a.. err.. thingy… metal… holes…" They generally provide the word sieve - & then realise the joke;) I also tell people I have "noun deficiency" - in that I know exactly what I want to say, but the name of it escapes me; usually until I stop trying so hard to remember it, then it comes back to me. Jun 22 at 10:06
  • @EricNolan. From Cambridge Dictionary
    – PPH
    Jun 22 at 13:04
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    @gonefishin'again. The other fun play on that phrase is "mind like a steel sieve". Works because the usual phrase is "mind like a steel trap", which means the exact opposite (having a very good memory), so you subvert expectations by changing the last word. Jun 22 at 13:54
  • Rather than using "bad," one might say "I'm not very good at remembering things." Jun 23 at 19:51
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As you can see, there are lots of options, but "I have a bad memory" is also just fine. It does have that ambiguity, as a matter of the meanings of the words, but people will know what you mean. One reason for this is that you would be a rare person indeed if you did not have multiple painful memories. Saying "I have a bad memory" in that sense is kind of like saying "I have a shirt." But saying "I have a bad memory" in the sense of having poor recall actually is informative, and so people will interpret it that way.

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A common idiomatic expression is having the memory of a goldfish.

To have an exceptionally poor memory. An allusion to the myth that goldfish can't remember anything for longer than a few seconds.
Mom has the memory of a goldfish, so don't bother asking her—there's no way she'll remember.

thefreedictionary.com

the memory of a goldfish
(colloquial) A very poor memory.
Wiktionary

Another example from an article on Huffpost:

I went from loving backpacking and sailing to struggling to make it to a 50-minute lecture; from being able to recall nearly any dialogue I had heard to having the short-term memory of a goldfish.

Note: It is scientifically proven that goldfish have a fairly good memory:

In reality, goldfish (Carassius auratus) have much longer memories — spanning weeks, months and even years, Brown said. - livescience.com

The idiom is based on a "myth" which is even in the definition. Scientific inaccuracy doesn't change the colloquial/idiomatic usage. Blind as a bat is another popular idiom like this, as bats are actually not blind and some species even have particularly sharp vision that they use it together with their echolocation.

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  • As a note, there is a key point in the question: "I'm really bad at recollecting something from my memory"; thus, this idiom covers this nuance.
    – ermanen
    Jun 22 at 10:22
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – gotube
    Jun 23 at 16:30
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A good word for this is forgetful. DialFrost’s suggestion of absentminded or absent-minded is another great one. We often describe intelligent people as absent-minded. A few of the others have, to me, slightly too negative a connotation, so I would be careful with them. You might not be portraying yourself in the best light.

You could also say, you have a poor memory rather than a bad memory, which doesn’t have the same ambiguity.

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You have choices:

  • I have a poor memory.
  • I am forgetful.
  • There are holes in my memory.
  • My memory is often a blank.

Those express the idea that memories are missing. Sometimes you want to say that you remember things that didn't happen just the way you remember them:

  • My memory is faulty.
  • I misremember things.
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  • Sorry, I missed this answer before and repeated part of it.
    – Davislor
    Jun 22 at 4:58
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    "There are holes in my memory" is not typically used for "I'm generally bad at remembering things", but rather "I sometimes black out and have no recollection of significant periods of time". I don't think I've heard someone say "My memory is (often) a blank" before. The more common expression (which it may also be confused for) is "My mind is a blank", which generally refers having difficulty recalling things (or other problems consciously thinking about a topic) when in a stressful situation (not just having trouble remembering things in general). So I wouldn't use either of those here.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 22 at 9:53
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"I have a bad memory" sounds a lot like I remember something bad that happened to me.

While that is grammatically speaking a correct possible interpretation, a listener will be perfectly able to understand you given the context of the conversation you're having.

Generally speaking, people are not going to state that they have had a negative past experience without either (a) the conversation clearly leading to this topic and/or (b) you not elaborating on that specific experience. If you just state that "you have a bad memory", it is clear that you mean that you don't remember things well.

If you'd still rather avoid the ambiguity anyway, you could opt for alternatives such as "my memory is bad", which more clearly refers to your memory ability (rather than a particular memory) being bad.
Alternatively, you could change the adjective to a less ambiguous one. Poor, flawed, short, ... are more clearly descriptive of your ability to remember rather than a particular memory you have.

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"absentminded" is a perfect fit here:

tending to forget or fail to notice things Source

Strongest option as well on our sister site here

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    Absentminded means not paying attention to things in the present, has nothing to do with remembering things from the past. And in most situations saying you are absentminded is way worse than anything else describing poor memory since it implies voluntary lack of attention which is an offense in most settings. - Consider your answer noticed.
    – CodeAngry
    Jun 22 at 7:59
  • @CodeAngry It can mean forgetting, some people are missing this out
    – DialFrost
    Jun 22 at 8:00

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