What Makes A Quote Memorable?

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya.
You had me at hello.
Life is like a box of chocolates.
Luke, I am your father.

Every year, a handful of movie quotes become integrated into popular culture. What is it about them that makes them so memorable? Is it just that they bring up fond memories of the movie, or is there  something about their structure that make them more likely to be remembered and passed on? A recent study from computer scientists at Cornell sheds some light on this.

In order to do this research, one first has to definite what one means by "memorable." These researchers decided to use quotes from the Memorable Quotes section of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as a way to identify enduring quotes.

First, the researchers wanted to see whether there was something about these quotes that distinguished them from non-memorable quotes. They had volunteers look at pairs of quotes from the same movie. One member of the pair was a “memorable quote” as defined by IMDb. The other was comparison quote spoken by the same character at approximately the same time as the memorable quote.

Could people tell the difference between memorable and nonmemerable quotes? Indeed, participants were above chance at identifying the memorable quotes, even though they had never seen the movies in question. So there does seem to be some thing about the memorable quotes that makes them recognizable even without the context of the movie itself.

Now that the researchers had some evidence that memorable quotes were intrinsically unique, they set about trying to figure out what made them different. They analyzed the member and non-memorable quotess, and this is what they found.

1. The memorable quotes used more distinctive vocabulary than their non-memorable counterparts.

2. The memorable quotes used more common syntactic patterns than non-memorable quotes.

3. The memorable quotes had some syntactic characteristics that might have made the quotes more generalizable to outside situations. For example, the memorable quotes had more present tense and less past tense, which might make them easier to quote in different contexts. They also had fewer pronouns than  non-memorable quotes.

What are some of your favorite movie quotes? Do they follow these patterns?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. Also, friend of the blog Kurt Crisman is running a really cool Kickstarter project to create a software that matches your fiction to literary journals using computer text analysis. Check it out!

Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Justin Cheng, Jon Kleinberg, & Lillian Lee (2012). You had me at hello: How phrasing affects memorability ACL 2012 arXiv: 1203.6360v1


  1. You selected some great examples to lead off with!

    Maybe part of it has to do with consistency, throughout a script (or a TV series, come to that). No doubt many, many films have one or two sensational candidates, and I bet their authors are (justifiably) proud of them. I know I'd be. But most films with memorable one-liners which enter the culture at large have many such. Think Wizard of Oz, or Silence of the Lambs, or Seinfeld. Heck, Toy Story.

    Then there are cult phenomena which catch on for a whole lot of reasons, script-related or not. The big lines get repeated back and forth among the insider audience because they trigger automatic remembered pleasure. When I watched Twin Peaks when it first started, the very first time I laughed out loud was in the pilot, when Agent Cooper was recording his audio log for his secretary/transcriptionist: "Diane, I'm holding in my hands a small box of chocolate bunnies..." (Present tense! simple syntax!) It was such a deliciously weird line which came to sum up for me everything I liked about the show. And I was so happy when -- even decades later -- I found other people who loved the line as much.

    1. Haha. Well, I'm certainly curious about those chocolate bunnies, JES.

  2. What a fun question to explore. I have to say: when I read "A recent study from computer scientists," my brain screeched to a halt. I'd have expected linguists to jump on research like this by now. But hey – more power to the computer scientists for taking it on!

    As for the examples you brought up, in terms of storytelling, these lines seem to encapsulate a main character, either in "want" or approach to life. I've been taking improv this year (which I SO recommend for any writer), and here's how my teacher defines character: "How you do what you do defines who you are." Pretty perfect if you ask me.

    In addition to revealing Vader's character, "Luke, I am your father" also adds another element – an additional inciting incident that turns the story on its head. My improv teacher calls these "tilts" – they add excitement and promise such a satisfying experience!

    1. P.S. Livia, since you live in LA now (as I do), let me know if you'd like to come to an improv class! I'd bet money you would love it.

    2. Haha, no improv for me, Margo. I'm too much of an introvert and have too many traumatic memories of middle school drama class. There's a reason I'm a writer :-)

  3. This is really interesting! I agree with Jan, context really matters. "Life is like a box of chocolates" would not make sense out of context.

    I also think rhythm has alot to do with it. But mostly, I think it's emotional impact.

    All of those lines have a deep emotional impact, some paired with an element of surprise.

    I think people remember the line because it is tied to the 'ephiphany' of the viewer's emotional awareness of the story.

    So, "ET go home" becomes a 'catch phrase' that people can share, in quick code, what they experienced while watching the movie. It also encapsulates their emotional experience.

    Be interesting to know if anything neurological happened at that moment in the film.

    Really fascinating, Livia!

    1. Oooh, ET phone home is a great one. So poignant, and so much emotion, as you say, Mira.

  4. Hi Livia,

    I thought quite a bit about this post - especially since I saw 'The Princess Bride' again this past weekend (and I read the post before watching it again). I agree with the earlier comments about context. 'Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya' doesn't do much unless you've seen the movie and understand why it is so interesting. Margo highlights very well the reason "Luke, I am your father" is so memorable - the Star Wars story pivots on that line.

    It will be interesting to see what the specific numbers that describe the 'above chances' odds for picking memorable quotes. In addition, it would be interesting to see what the comparison quotes looked like as i'm not sure time proximity to the original quote is enough basis for determining a suitable comaparison. For example, shortly after saying, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya", Montoya says, "You killed my father. Prepare to die". He also made some random comment about sword fighting too. I imagine that the degree of difference that will be observed between the first and the second alternative could be markedly different.

    Finally, even if you haven't watched the movie, it is possible to be familiar with quotes from it, hence skewing the results. I haven't seen Star Wars yet I recognized the "I am your father" quote and one of my memorable quotes is the one where Yoda tells Luke "Do or do not. There is no try."

    An interesting idea nonetheless!

    1. Kunle,

      The same thing crossed my mind about familiarity with quotes from movies you haven't watched.

      The paper had some sample quotes, I'll try to dig them up later.

  5. good one. sound and context are huuuge.
    I'm currently even looking for ways to make my writing more compelling - and studies like these
    helps me TONS.
    Thanx for sharing,
    Livia !