Why do some movie quotes stick in our heads?

Tue, May 1, 2012, 01:00

THAT’S THE WHY:WHAT IS it about some movie quotes that make them stick in our heads?

We tend to remember lines such as “You talkin’ to me?” (from Taxi Driver), “Houston, we have a problem” (from Apollo 13) and “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” (from Jaws).

The films contain plenty of other lines but those ones stick out and, even if you haven’t seen the film itself, you may still know the quotes because you have heard them repeated.

Why are some movie quotes more memorable than others?

Researchers at Cornell University went to the trouble of trying to find out. They trawled through the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website and tagged quotes that were deemed as memorable from about 1,000 films. Then they matched each quote with a comparable non-memorable line from the relevant film.

So how did the “sticky” quotes differ from their less well-remembered counterparts? In general terms, memorable quotes tended to use common patterns of syntax, but perhaps less common word choices. That gave them a “lexical distinctiveness”, the researchers describe.

They also argue that memorable quotes tend to be more general, so they can be applied in many different contexts. This could go some way to understanding how the quotes vault out of the movie and into wider use.

“Understanding more about how information achieves widespread public awareness is a research question of significant interest,” write the authors in a paper presented recently at a conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics. Later, they add: “Future work may lead to applications in marketing, advertising and education.”