Jane Austen’s naming style

We writers can learn to compose better by reading the work of recognized authors.  One of my favorites is Jane Austen.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the names Austen uses, and what I can learn about naming my own fictional characters from her novels.

Austen (1775-1816), chooses names from common English first names for her main male characters such as Charles Bingley (Pride and Prejudice), Charles Musgrove Sr. and Jr. and Charles Hayter (Persuasion); John Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, and John Willoughby (Sense and Sensibility) and John Knightly (Emma); William Collins, Sir William Lucas, and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and William Elliot (Persuasion); and George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) and George Knightly (Emma).

Similarly, Austen reuses common names of women for important characters:  Elizabeth Elliot (Persuasion) and Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Mary Elliot Musgrove (Persuasion), Mary Parker (Sanditon), Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), and Mary Bennett (Pride and Prejudice); Kitty Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice); Jane Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma); Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) and Charlotte Heywood (Sanditon); Georgiana Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Georgiana Lamb (Sanditon); Anne Taylor Weston (Emma) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion).

Why does Austen repeat the same names when so many others exist?  Tradition is one reason.  Austen writes about “three or four families in a country village” where traditional values are shown by fathers passing down names to their sons and mothers to their daughters.  Names hold communities together. 

(I am reminded of the naming tradition in the Irish hamlets my grandparents came from.  Children would be known by their own first name as well as their father’s and grandfather’s names.  I would have been known as Kathy Tommy Johnny.)

Love of family is another reason Austen repeats names of characters within a family.  Isabella Knightly (Emma) names her children Henry (after her father), John (after her husband), Bella (perhaps after her mother), Emma (after her sister), and George (after her brother-in-law).  Characters’ respect for the royal family is another reason for choosing names.  Many men in Austen’s books are named George. (George I, George II, and George III all served as kings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Austen was writing.)

Sometimes Austen shows who the outliers are in her books by giving them unusual names, such as Augusta Elton.  Women of fashion are named newer names such as Louisa, Caroline and Lydia.

Almost none of Austen’s characters are known by nicknames.  Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy, Eliza) and her sister, Kitty, are exceptions.  The novels come from a time when people addressed each other by their family names (Mr. Collins, Mrs. Dashwood) or by their titles (Sir William, Lady Catherine).  In a culture of such formality, nicknames were used only at home, and not always then.

In the months before her death in 1816, Austen began Sanditon, a novel set in a fictitious seaside resort which was literally financed and built by characters who come from elsewhere and are not bound by tradition.  For this book, Austen breaks with the traditional names she uses in her earlier books and gives many of her characters names she hasn’t used before such as Clara, Esther, Arthur, and Sidney.  The names seem to say change.

What worked for Austen might not work for us.  But what we can learn is that none of her characters are named randomly.  The name of each character serves a purpose.

For more information see http://www.JASNA for an article in issue 19 of Persuasions by Susannah Fullerton as well as several online articles.

Offer students check lists to help them evaluate their essays

Much of my time as a tutor is spent helping students revise essays they have written.  To aid my students, I have written a check list they can use to analyze the organization of various essays.  Below is such a checklist for an informational essay.  You might find it useful too.Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.

[ ]  Is a thesis (an overall topic sentence for the whole essay) included at the end of the introduction (usually at the end of the first paragraph)?  

[ ]  If there is no thesis, write one.  This declarative sentence should tell the reader what you will prove in the rest of the essay.

[ ]  Is the thesis repeated or paraphrased in the subtopic sentence (usually the first sentence) of each body paragraph?

[ ]  If the thesis is not repeated in the subtopic sentences, repeat it.  Or if such a sentence is missing, write one.

[ ]  Does each subtopic sentence break down the thesis idea into reasons, examples, or parts?

[ ]  If not, identify how you are breaking down the thesis in each body paragraph. 

[ ]  Do the details in each paragraph support the subtopic sentence for that paragraph and support the thesis?  Delete those which do not.  Write details that do.

[ ]  In the introduction, do the sentences leading up to the thesis tell the reader the broad topic of your essay?  If they don’t, make them.

[ ]  In the conclusion, is the thesis broadly repeated?  It should be.

[ ]  Does the conclusion provide a satisfying ending.  It might look to the future of the thesis claim, or give an anecdote, or elaborate on one of the supporting ideas, but it should not include information that has not already been stated in the body.

I find that check lists like this one offer students independence and save me time.  Students learn to repair their essays’ shortcomings–at least some of them–without a teacher’s help.

Using Bloom’s taxonomy in course posts

The first time I took an online graduate course, I was required to respond in a blog to journal readings and responses of other students.  Some student comments were truly insightful, and I learned from them. But others were trite.  Lately these student responses have me considering how to write appropriate entries.

One good approach to this kind of writing is to use Bloom’s taxonomy.  Briefly, the taxonomy ranks thinking from easiest to most difficult:

  • Remembering (repeating word-for-word or by using synonyms),
  • Understanding (defining or explaining the meaning),
  • Applying (showing how a concept has been used elsewhere or can be used in different circumstances),
  • Analyzing (breaking a concept into its components)
  • Evaluating (determining values of competing concepts or components), and
  • Synthesizing (creating new concepts by fusing existing concepts or using an existing concept as a starting point).

Let’s take a well-known piece of writing, Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and apply Bloom’s taxonomy to responses we might write about it.

  • Unacceptable (personal comments, off-topic comments, liking or not liking with no explanation)
  • Remembering (repeating a line or two, naming an idea previously stated by the teacher, but adding no new information)
  • Understanding (summarizing the poem, paraphrasing it, but adding no new information)
  • Applying (discussing rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech and other poetic elements that Frost used in the poem)
  • Analyzing (discussing patterns of rhyme or diction, discussing published critiques of the poem)
  • Evaluating (discussing where this poem ranks among Frost’s poems, how it rates compared to the work of other poets, discussing criterion used to rank the poem), and
  • Synthesizing (writing a poem or other artistic expression using the style or content of the poem, such as the illustration for this blog; writing a sequel to the poem; writing a poem in a completely different style to express the ideas of the poem).

Encouraging students to add details

This past week, I worked with a sixth grader who wrote an essay on the Superbowl.  This student has a vivid imagination, but his essay lacked the sparkle of his personality.  So I asked question after question, eliciting wonderful details, details he had neglected to put in his essay. 

boy writing on a window bench

For example, in his original essay he implied he watched the game on TV with his family.  But when I prodded, he told me he had prepared a party-like atmosphere.  How, I asked him.  He wrote, “Before the game started, I  prepared snacks and drinks, including Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, Mentos, very cheesy popcorn, Lays chips, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Chinese popcorn (for my picky parents), and Black Forest gummy bears (for me).”

Originally, he talked about the Chiefs losing because they accumulated many penalties.  Name some, I suggested.  He wrote, “For example, the Chiefs got an interception, but they committed a foul which means that the interception didn’t count, and the Buccaneers moved up ten yards. Another example is that it was fourth down and five yards to go, and the Buccaneers were going to make a field goal, but a foul by the Chiefs caused the Buccaneers to get a whole new set of downs. Because of the foul, the Buccaneers got a touchdown.”

He and his brother bet on the game, with the loser (his brother) needing to buy the winner (my student) a soft drink.  How did it feel to drink that soft drink, I asked him.  He wrote, “I guzzled it in front of him, sloshing down and slurping that tasty Fanta that he thought he should have won.”

You didn’t mention the final score, I told him.  Oops!  He wrote, “The final score was 31-9 Buccaneers with the Chiefs not scoring a single touchdown.”

I find that this experience is typical of my work as a tutor.  I wheedle out details and encourage students to write them down.  If I don’t ask, the details don’t appear, and the essay stays mediocre.  If I prod, wonderful details spew forth and the essay, like my student, sparkles. 

[Other concepts we worked on during revision:  adding humor, using consistent verb tenses, adding suspense by not telling who won the bet in the introduction, connecting the introduction and conclusion, adding direct quotes, using more specific, descriptive verbs].

Here is the completed essay:

On February 7th, 2021, my brother and I bet on who would win the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  My brother picked the Chiefs.  He always wins and boasts about winning. But I was not deterred by his boasting.  I still picked the Buccaneers. Our bet was on.

Before the game started, I  prepared snacks and drinks, including Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, Mentos, very cheesy popcorn, Lays chips, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Chinese popcorn (for my picky parents), and Blackforest gummy bears (for me). I also grabbed 54 sports stuffed animals and laid them out on a Buccaneers’ blanket to watch the game with my family. My brother said, “Whoever wins has to buy the other person a Fanta.”  We shook on it, and he added, “No turning back.”   I researched to see who would win but after an hour of searching, I gave up because all the Internet said was that the Chiefs would win. The Chiefs had a higher percentage rate of winning compared to the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers chances were very slim with a 20.6% chance of winning the Super Bowl.  I knew that one dollar for a Fanta was going to come out of my pocket.

The Chiefs scored first with a three point field goal. My brother laughed his guts out. During the first quarter the Chiefs scored six points which is ok considering the fact that this is a Super Bowl. On the other hand, the Buccaneers scored two touchdowns during the first quarter so I was laughing my guts out. Since the Chiefs were down by two touchdowns, they got aggressive and started to make penalties. Meanwhile the Buccaneers were getting touchdowns play after play which made the Chiefs even more angry and more penalties.For example, the Chiefs got an interception, but they committed a foul which means that the interception didn’t count, and the Buccaneers moved up ten yards. Another example is that it was fourth down and five yards to go, and the Buccaneers were going to make a field goal, but a foul by the Chiefs caused the Buccaneers to get a whole new set of downs. Because of the foul, the Buccaneers got a touchdown.  The final score was 31-9 Buccaneers with the Chiefs not scoring a single touchdown. 

As the game ended, I  grinned my face off.   My brother grumbled.  “I should have won.”  He bought me a Fanta from the vending machine  grudgingly. I guzzled it in front of him, sloshing down and slurping that tasty Fanta that he thought he should have won.  Afterwards, I realized that predictions from many sources do not guarantee a win. I also realized that I had never felt better after beating my brother. 



Can writing predict Alzheimer’s Disease?

Can writing samples predict who will develop Alzheimer’s Disease years later?

Yes, according to researchers from IBM.

IBM studied 80 men and women in their 70s, none of whom showed signs of Alzheimer’s.  They were asked to write about a drawing of a kitchen scene.  A boy stood on a wobbly stool, grabbing for cookies in an upper cabinet while a girl his age watched.  Nearby a woman, with her back to the children, washed dishes, not seeming to realize that the boy was in danger or that water from the kitchen sink was overflowing.

To describe the scene, some of the subjects wrote simple phrases such as “washing dishes” and “stool tipping ove.”  Others wrote longer phrases such as “Mother washing dishes” and “water overflowing in sink.”  Still others wrote complete sentences, such as “He is standing on a stool and is almost falling over” and “The water from the faucet is running over on to the floor.”

Seven and a half years later, half of the original subjects showed signs of Alzheimer’s while half did not.  Researchers studied the writings of years earlier, using an artificial intelligence (AI) program.  The earlier writing of those with Alzheimers showed several characteristics such as

  • Repetition in word usage
  • Incorrect spelling
  • Incorrect capitalization
  • Simple grammatical structures and missing words like “the,” “is,” and “are.”

The AI program with 75 percent accuracy identified who would develop Alzheimer’s based on the subjects’ earlier writings.  Results were recently published in The Lancet journal EClinicalMedicine.

With such knowledge, researchers hope those who will develop Alzheimer’s can be identified before the onset of the disease.  When drugs to combat Alzheimer’s become available, those people can be targeted to prevent the disease or to slow its progress.

Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s Disease considered Agatha Christie’s writing.  Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted a study of her writing and concluded she developed Alzheimer’s while she was still writing.  They based this conclusion on changes in Christie’s writing style as she aged.  They analyzed the variety of words she used and the number of indefinite nouns and phrases she used in each of her books from the time she was 28 to 82.

Researchers found that the vocabulary variety in her novels decreased by 15 to 30 percent while the repetition of phrases and indefinite words (something, anything) increased dramatically.  The largest changes showed in a book written in her 80s.

Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s is a study of nuns in Wisconsin.  When they were young (average age 22), they wrote their autobiographies.  After death, their brains were examined for Alzheimer’s disease.  Those women who had low idea density in their autobiographies all developed Alzheimer’s while none of those with high idea density did.  Idea density was a better predictor of Alzheimer’s in the nuns than was low grammar complexity.