Sunday Diversion: Words and Remembrance

Victor Wishna

Staff Writer

Victor Wishna's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR,, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.

It’s commonly accepted (and, I suppose, scientifically confirmed) that as we get older, our memory starts to fade. Of course, this does not happen evenly—how else to explain that while I have forgotten just about everything I ever heard in high school calculus class, I can still recall nearly every line of dialogue from So I Married an Axe Murderer…, which I saw and was encoded onto my brain at roughly the same time in my life? More specifically, when it comes to language, why do some things make it into our long-term memories while other moments and phrases never stand a chance?

You might be glad to know that a team of Cornell computer scientists (who likely remember most of what they learned in calculus) recently tested a theory about the role of word choice and sentence structure in our ability to remember what we hear (and/or read). For their study, they consulted the illustrious IMDb (apparently even more respected than Wikipedia in the scientific community) for memorable quotes from 1,000 films, used their own methods to validate the quotes’ memorability, and then compared those quotes to supposedly non-memorable quotes from the same movies (and same scenes, spoken by the same characters).

In other words, why do I remember, “Excuse me miss; there seems to be a mistake. I believe I ordered the large cappuccino. ‘Hello!’” But not, “I’m up. Wish me luck”—a line that comes moments later in the same scene.

Well, the authors summarized their conclusions like this:

We find significant differences between memorable and non-memorable quotes in several key dimensions. One is lexical distinctiveness: in aggregate, memorable quotes use less common word choices, but at the same time are built upon a scaffolding of common syntactic patterns; another is that memorable quotes tend to be more general in ways that make them easy to apply in new contexts. We also show how the concept of “memorable language” can be extended across domains. (emphasis in the original.)

You can play the researchers’ game of memorable/not-memorable quotes here. But why did the researchers focus only on movie quotes in their data? Surely, some of the most memorable and beloved written lines come from great speeches and, of course, great literature. But as The Economist’s Language blog put it, “If you’re thinking Shakespeare or Churchill here, then you’re too erudite for today’s world.”

Well, since I have the good fortune of writing for a way-too-erudite audience, I figured I’d dig up some examples from literature and run the same experiment (though more shoddily constructed and less strictly regulated). There are plenty of memorable lines in literature, and perhaps the same formula applies.*

*I wasn’t sure whether to control for first and last lines. But then I remembered this is a shoddily constructed and poorly regulated experiment. Also, we may think we’re more likely to remember some lines in literature simply because they’re first lines (as opposed to second), but that alone isn’t what makes them memorable (after all, every book has a first line).

In each pair that follows, which quote is considered memorable by (I know—it’s no IMDb), and which, from the same novel as the other, is not? And just for fun, I’ll let you guess the novel.


a. “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.”

b. “With the curious disarming friendliness that he always managed to put into the gesture, he resettled his spectacles on his nose.”


a. “It was the saddest and most cruel April of the five.”

b. “She wouldn’t have liked that; she was suspicious of people who spoke a different language.”


a. “The horses, needless to say, were not mentioned again.”

b. “He’s so dumb, he doesn’t know he’s alive.”


a. “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law in special cases.”

b. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


a. “It happened to fall on the 30th of September, my birthday, a fact which had no effect on events, except that, expecting some form of monetary remembrance from my family, I was eager for the postman’s morning visit.”

b. “I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.”


a. “I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am your slave…”

b. “He is immensely strong, for he is more like a wild beast than a man.”


a. “There are no evil thoughts…except one: the refusal to think.”

b. “Everything happened in the normal, explicable, justifiable course of plain incompetence.”


a. “You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

b. “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”


a. “Jesus, what I could do with a couple pigs!”

b. “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…”


a. “You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair…People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.”

b. “But she had…the glimmerings of a sense of humor—which is simply another name for a sense of fitness of things.”

Feel free to share responses in the comments, and perhaps I’ll post the correct answers and titles this week. Though I imagine most of you erudite people can figure these out relatively easily. It ain’t rocket science.

Or calculus.