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The Secret Science of Memorable Quotes

Computer scientists have analysed thousands of memorable movie quotes to work out why we remember certain phrases and not others.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” 

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“May the Force be with you.”

Some of the most famous quotes in the history of cinema. But why do we remember these and not others–the characters’ preceding lines, for example? What is it about memorable lines that makes them stick?

That’s the question that Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and pals from Cornell University study today. And they make a remarkably good stab at providing some insight into this phenomenon in an entertaining paper. 

These guys took short, memorable lines from around 1,000 movies and compared them against other lines of a similar length spoken by the same character at about the same point in the film. (They define memorable lines as those listed as such on the Internet Movie Database website, IMDB.com.)

They then asked individuals who had not seen the films to guess which of the two lines was the memorable one. On average, people chose correctly about 75 percent of the time, confirming the idea that the memorable features are inherent in the lines themselves and not the result of some other factor, such as the length of the lines or their location in the film.

The test is available for anybody to try here. Give it a go–I got 9 correct out of 12.

They then compared the memorable phrases with a standard corpus of common language phrases taken from 1967, making it unlikely to contain phrases from modern films. They say they can measure the distinctiveness of the memorable phrase by seeing how likely various-sized segments of it turn up in the corpus. They can also see whether the grammatical structure of the phrase is unusual using a similar method.

The results are interesting. The phrases themselves turn out to be significantly distinctive, meaning they’re made up of combinations of words that are unlikely to appear in the corpus. By contrast, memorable phrases tend to use very ordinary grammatical structures that are highly likely to turn up in the corpus.

They also found that memorable phrases tend to use pronouns (other than you), the indefinite article a rather than the definite article the, and verbs in the past rather than present tense. These are all features that tend to make phrases general rather than specific.  

So memorable phrases contain generic pearls of wisdom expressed with unusual combinations of words in ordinary sentences. 

Finally, these guys test their results by measuring how catchphrases used in adverts and marketing campaigns measure up in the same tests. 

These are phrases that are deliberately intended to be memorable. So if they have the same properties that the team found in memorable movie phrases, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil assumes they must be on to something. 

Sure enough, these catchphrases generally have the same properties–they express general ideas in a simple way using unusual combinations of words.

That’s an interesting study that points to a number of interesting new lines of research. Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and co say it may even be useful in the real world. “Future work may lead to applications in marketing, advertising and education.”

It may, for example, be possible to automatically test phrases that are intended to be catchy to see whether they fit the criteria. That may help rule out poor catchphrases (although it would also rule out a certain proportion of good ones).  

It may also be interesting to see how memorable phrases have changed over the years.

But what it doesn’t tell you is the pearl of wisdom the memorable phrase should deliver in the first place. 

“Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1203.6360: You Had Me at Hello: How Phrasing Affects Memorability

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