Why certain phrases are memorable

You had me at hello: How phrasing affects memorability, a clever study of "memorable phrases" from movies and advertisements from Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Justin Cheng, Jon Kleinberg, Lillian Lee at Cornell attempts to uncover why certain phrases become part of our collective history.

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.

The Secret Science of Memorable Quotes


  1. Just looked at (though haven’t read) the paper on arXiv, and the authors win the internet for the best section titles in a scientific paper. Ever.

  2. If people use these rules to make phrases more memorable (as you know some arseholes will), then all the phrases will all be the same and none will stand out. Bet it happens too,

  3. All the legwork and research is admirable, I suppose. But isn’t it sufficient to simply state that some phrases are memorable and some aren’t? Counting words and pronouns and line lengths seems COMPLETELY OVER THE TOP

    There’s really NO REASON TO GILD THE LILY unless you’re the TOP BANANA and want to KNOCK IT OUT OF THE PARK

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

    Noted.  I hope this is a graduate-student study at Cornell.  If these people are professors getting paid for this research…  all of my sour grapes.

  5. One of my favorite phrases is mnemonic: “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me”.
    Nearly impossible to forget, each first letter is a type of common star, in order, from hottest to coolest.  Our fat old sun is of the yellow G-type.

    Here’s another:  “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs”, nice because it contains every letter of the alphabet, a slightly naughtier alternative to “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.

    One more:  “Naomi, sex at noon taxes, I moan”.  Can you figure out why it’s special?

    1. I’d like to point out that besides that type of thing not being what they’re talking about, all of your example sentences are not easy for me to remember. 

      Those sorts of things never worked for me to remember sequences of whatever precisely because the sentences aren’t memorable – they’re nothing like the memorable sentences or phrases this study is about. 

      Plus I have a hard time remembering things in general, but, I don’t think I’m alone in not finding those sentences useful. I think the effort you put into memorizing the sentence could go straight into memorizing the actual sequence (of planet types or whatever it is you wish to remember).

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