Screen science: The secret of the lines we never forget

Researchers have hit on a formula to work out why certain quotes stay with us

"Hasta la vista, baby" may have been uttered by a murderous cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but could a computer recognise it as one of cinema's most memorable lines? Yes, according to a group of American researchers.

A team at Cornell University has created a computer program to break down the formula behind some of cinema's most enduring lines, from Dirty Harry's "Do you feel lucky, punk?" to Casablanca's "Here's looking at you, kid."

In its current form the algorithm may not be a huge help for budding screenwriters looking for their first hit, but its creators believe that in the future it may well be able to come out with a few classic quotes, or at least a successful advertising slogan, on its own.

Computer scientist Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil initially wanted to scrutinise political speeches and news bulletins to pick out the best lines, but when they turned out to be too problematic, the team turned its attention to films to analyse what drove certain lines into popular culture. For its research paper – entitled You had me at hello: How phrasing affects memorability – they scoured the internet for film scripts and studied 1,000 films, highlighting memorable quotes selected by users of the film website imdb.com.

The team then asked people to judge between two quotes from films they had not seen, with one line memorable and the other less so. In about 78 per cent of cases, people could detect the more memorable quote.

The researchers found that the more memorable quotes were made up of word combinations unlikely to appear elsewhere in the film. Yet the grammatical structures of the quotes tended to be ordinary.

Other interesting quirks of the memorable quotes included more of a use of the indefinite article rather than the definite article, verbs in the past tense and the use of pronouns other than "you".

The best quote, according to Mr Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, was: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," uttered by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Mr Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil said: "That quote ticks a number of boxes. It has the general aspect but also it has an unusual combination of 'my dear' and 'damn'." He also pointed to other general quotes such as the opening of Star Wars: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."

Mr Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil added: "There are some trends you can pick out of the language. It is no silver bullet; for example, a [common] phrase like 'I'll be back' isn't easily categorised."

He added that generating lines of its own would be "the next step. You know what you want to say, but how do you make it more memorable? No computer can tell you that at the moment."

Famous quotes...

Humphrey Bogart Casablanca (1942)

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"

Renee Zellweger Jerry Maguire (1996)

"You had me at hello"

Clarke Gable Gone with the Wind (1939)

"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn"

Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator II (1992)

"Hasta la vista, baby"

Gloria Swanson Sunset Boulevard (1950)

"I'm ready for my close-up"

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