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That's not a line. That's a line

What makes a movie quote memorable? David Dale studies some scary research.

Let's start with a few film quotes. If you don't recognise a single one of them, there may not be much point in continuing to read this column, which is about new research from Cornell University on what makes a movie line memorable. If you're stuck, the answers can be found on this page.

1 ''That'll do, pig, that'll do.''

2 ''There's a smell in here that will outlast religion.''

3 ''That's not a knife. That's a knife.''

4 ''Let's get them no good cheeky bull in the big bloody metal ship!''

5 ''Tell 'im 'e's dreamin'.''


6 ''I'm paid to make men believe what they want to believe.''

7 ''What makes you think that the girl wants a skinny Yank like you when us real blokes are here?''

8 ''You're terrible, Muriel.''

Those are probably the best-known lines from some of Australia's most popular movies. But the boffins at Cornell's Department of Computer Science would say most of them do not meet the criteria for memorability revealed in a project they plan to present to a conference on computational linguistics in South Korea in July. The boffins claim the following lines have a lot more going for them in the memorability race.

9 ''May the Force be with you.''

10 ''You had me at hello.''

11 ''May the odds be ever in your favour.''

12 ''You can't handle the truth.''

13 ''Love means never having to say you're sorry.''

14 ''You're gonna need a bigger boat.''

15 ''The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.''

16 ''Myyyyy precious!''

17 ''Never send a human to do a machine's job.''

18 ''After all, tomorrow is another day.''

The research team, led by the wonderfully named Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil set itself the task of discovering what type of sentence is most likely to be ''retained in the public consciousness'' or ''take hold on people's minds''.

They used the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to build a list of what are generally agreed to be ''memorable quotes'' from films.

To separate the message from its dramatic context, they paired each classic line with a sentence of similar length spoken by the same character in a similar context, and used their supercomputer to isolate unique characteristics of the memorable quotes. Here's how a great movie line compares with the type of sentence you or I might use in everyday conversation:

- It makes sense to someone who knows nothing of the context (has not seen the movie).

 - It uses standard grammar but contains unusual words or word combinations.

- It is more likely to use the indefinite article (a) than the definite (the).

- It is more likely to contain a second-person pronoun (you) than a first-person (I, we) or a third-person (he, she, they).

- It is more likely to be in the present tense than the past tense.

- It contains more front vowel sounds (ee or eh) than back sounds (u or o). Front vowels are said to sound more lively and cheerful.

Authors say this research has implications for the creation of political propaganda and advertising messages. New Scientist says: ''It means computers might one day help writers test their latest catchy lines.''

I find both notions disturbing. Movies are formularised enough without computers filtering screenplays for definite articles, past tenses, personal pronouns and back vowels. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

The sources

1. Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), Babe (1995)
2. Kenny (Shane Jacobson), Kenny (2006)
3. Mick Dundee (Paul Hogan), Crocodile Dundee (1986)
4. Nullah (Brandon Walters), Australia (2008)
5. Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton), The Castle (1997)
6. Satine (Nicole Kidman), Moulin Rouge! (2001)
7. Peeto (John Batchelor), Red Dog (2011)
8. Joanie Heslop (Gabby Millgate), Muriel's Wedding (1994)
9. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Star Wars (1977)
10. Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), Jerry Maguire (1996)
11. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), The Hunger Games (2012).
12. Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), A Few Good Men (1992)
13. Jennifer (Ali MacGraw) and Oliver (Ryan O'Neal), Love Story (1970)
14. Brody (Roy Scheider), Jaws (1975)
15. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
16. Gollum (Andy Serkis), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
17. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), The Matrix (1999)
18. Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), Gone with the Wind (1939)

For a link to the Cornell research, and to discuss your own most memorable lines, see smh.com.au/opinion/blog/the-tribal-mind.