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Tutor profile: Brittany S.

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Brittany S.
Former English and History Instructor
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Questions

Subject: Writing

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Question:

When should I avoid the passive voice? When might I use it?

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Brittany S.
Answer:

The question of active and passive voice is actually a very fundamental one to effective writing. As such, I've given the most thorough, complete answer I can without getting too deep in the weeds. The active voice clarifies the acting subject in a given sentence; that is, it makes it very clear who is doing what action in your sentence and at the time you are describing. It helps you avoid using too many prepositional phrases, which can get confusing or tedious for a reader. Additionally, changing from passive to active voice can force you as a writer to be better cognizant of the actors, actions, and objects, in your writing. You'll also be forced to more strongly consider the relationships between different words and phrases in your writing. For example, let's take the sentence, "The eastern armies were forced into submission." Well, who did the forcing? Who were these strong opponents? Don't leave your reader with an unanswered question when you know the answer. Even if you provide the answer, e.g. "The eastern armies were forced into submission by the hordes from the west," it's much simpler and provides more emphasis on this interesting subject to make the sentence active voice: "the hordes from the west forced the eastern armies into submission." This leads me to answer the other part of your question: when should we use passive voice? If the actor is actually unknown, i.e. you don't have the answer to give your reader, then you should use passive voice. However, writer beware: when writing a research paper or any persuasive essay, you should probably know the answers and should therefore provide them. If you don't know who the actor is, you need to explicitly address that fact in your paper. Maybe scholars have not yet determined who really wrote that one work attributed to Shakespeare, or maybe no one knows what split the tree stump in half; in those sorts of cases, you may use the passive voice. Another very specific use for the passive voice may be that you want to emphasize the ones being acted upon rather than the actor itself. Let's go back to that "Armies" example. If you're writing a paragraph or essay on the eastern armies, you might want to use the passive voice and say "Ultimately, the eastern armies were forced into submission by the western hordes." Technically, the subject of your greater context is the eastern armies, so it makes editorial sense* to leave the sentence in passive voice. All in all, the active voice makes your writing stronger. Generally, you make a better impression on the reader and give your reader more clarity when you use the active voice, and using the active voice makes you a better writer as it makes you think a bit more (sometimes much more) about what it is that you're writing. A good rule of English writing is this: you know what you're saying, but the reader doesn't. It's your job to make sure they do. The passive voice has its uses, but you should typically only use passive voice when it's absolutely necessary (e.g. subject is truly unknown) or when it makes the most editorial sense to do so. * Special note: Editing is different from proofreading! Proofreading only involves checking for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors and all their technicalities, but editing refers to evaluating style, word usage (diction), phrasing, vocabulary, tone, mood, wordiness... everything from what you literally said to things in that "it's not what you say, it's how you say it" category.

Subject: English as a Second Language

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Question:

Question One: One student asked me, "I used the phrase 'injured with compassion.' It makes sense in my language, so why doesn't it make sense in English?" Question Two: Another student asked a listening question: "how can I tell the difference between can and can't when someone is speaking?"

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Brittany S.
Answer:

Answer One: The verb "to injure" needs something physical, something you can touch, to be paired with that verb. If we're talking about verbs and objects of those verbs, objects that go with the active verb "to injure" must take concrete nouns as objects (concrete nouns are things you can see and touch) instead of abstract nouns (abstract nouns only exist in your head; they're an idea or an emotion, and you can't see or touch it). "Injure" just does not work with the abstract noun compassion, which is why this phrase does not make sense in English. This happens in other languages, too! Sometimes the phrase in English does not make sense in Spanish or in Mandarin, but the theme or emotion can still be expressed in that language. So, you need to change the words to suit the rules of that language. Can you think of any examples of sentences or phrases in English that don't fit in your native language without any changes? As a practice exercise, try writing a couple examples. Answer Two: Listening can be the biggest hurdle (barrier, obstacle; something making success or achievement hard) in learning any language, because native speakers of a language often say words differently from the "correct" or standard way of saying those words. We call the way someone says a word, phrase or sentence their "pronunciation." Pronunciation of words varies between every speaker of English, and sometimes, the words do not sound like how they are written. This can happen with the words "can" and "can't" because some speakers do not do what we call "aspiration." To "aspirate" a consonant means to give it that extra sound that clearly distinguishes it. For example, what sound does the letter T make? It makes the "tuh" sound. When someone aspirates as they speak the word "can't," they include that "tuh" sound, even briefly, at the end of the word. This is true for words like "bolt," "threat," "bat," and "cat." However, many speakers do not aspirate their Ts, which means their pronunciation of the word "can't" sounds very, very close to "can." For some, the T consonant is barely present when they speak. Unfortunately, the only solution in conversation is to either clarify with the speaker which word they meant (You may politely ask them, "I'm sorry, did you say can or can't?"),. If you are confused on a listening test, think about the context of the conversation: would it make more sense for the speaker to say "can" or "can't"? If you can, listen again to the audio, and try to catch any aspiration.

Subject: US History

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Question:

(The following essay question appeared on an exam I created at Sun Yat-sen University.) Historically, Americans have been divided on different moral, economic, and governing issues. Americans debate about a) the role of government in deciding those issues, and b) how much help the government can or should offer. Using what you have learned from lectures and readings about conservatism, racism, and U.S. presidents, write about how conservatives in America have answered these debates. What did different groups of conservatives believe? You must include traditionalist conservatives, conservative fusionists, and neoconservatives in your answer.

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Brittany S.
Answer:

Conservatism has taken many shapes and forms throughout American history, and there is no single tradition of American conservatism or even one single thread connecting every ideology. However, American history has witnessed three main bodies of conservative thought: traditionalist conservatism, conservative fusionism, and neoconservatism. Traditionalist conservatives, often associated and aligned with Burkean conservatism in our course, adhered to a political philosophy that emphasized the need for the principles of a transcendent moral order, manifested through certain natural laws to which they believed society ought to conform in a "prudent manner." Prudence can be defined as careful good judgment that allows someone to avoid danger or risks. As such, it's no wonder that presidents like Calvin Coolidge simply wanted to keep things going the same and to avoid risking what they saw as then-concurrent prosperity. Traditionalist conservatives believed that the government should be maintaining the moral order: laws should be in accordance with natural law, and the state should not interfere with any prosperity. Prudence demanded that the state not overreach its bounds or expand for the sake of expansion. At this stage, we saw many such conservatives advocate for slavery because they believed slavery was in accordance with natural law. Others who believed in natural law found American slavery a unique evil not found in nature, rather than a "necessary evil" as their opponents sometimes argued. As we read on through American history, we see that various wars, territorial acquisitions, trade deals, advances in political thought, and numerous foreign affairs made this philosophy alone insufficient for most politicians, and that it's possible to hold these tenets while being in different political parties. It was not a unifying principle to guide one party and the political parties themselves had separate policy goals, so Burkean conservatism gave way under the American two-party system. The "prudence" in governing so characteristic to Burkean conservatism unfortunately was a leading factor in the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression. Liberals, especially in the Democratic Party, took full force in electing FDR' and became dominant under his leadership of the country. It was not until the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Frank S. Meyer that a new conservatism took root and became a movement: the conservative fusionist movement. Under Buckley's publication National Review, conservatives ranging from religious conservatives to the Burkean holdouts, from the traditionalists to the libertarians. Many Americans today still believe in the power of conservative fusionism as a uniting political philosophy, and opinion columnists and scholars alike continue debating whether it can stand up to the policy and demographic changes of the 2010s onward. Regardless, conservative fusionism led to the unification of voters within the Republican Party; the GOP is in many ways the party of conservative fusionism. According to our lecture, Ronald Reagan was the ultimate conservative fusionist candidate, as Reaganism combined ideas from neoliberalism, neoconservatism, the George Wallace movement, fundamentalism, libertarianism, the New Right... he fused some of nearly everything. This can also explain why he remains so loved and revered within the GOP today. Reaganism and its distrust of large government, aversion to post-feminism and progressivism, and leanings to American first-ism remain one of the strongest legacies of the conservative fusionist movement, and have shaped the members' beliefs and attitudes toward government, economy, and social change accordingly. Lastly, we must discuss neoconservatism. This has been hotly debated as proper "conservatism" for the past two decades, but neoconservatism began long before its figureheads such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney ascended to the presidency and vice-presidency, respectively. Opponents to considering neocons "conservatives" often crticize neocons for being no more than "hawkish liberals," or neoliberals with more desire to go to war. Neoconservative Irving Kristol has said, "A welfare state, properly conceived, can be an integral part of a conservative society." As discussed in the readings, contemporary conservatives often find welfare distasteful (note Reagan's contempt for "welfare queens") and oppose "government handouts," considering support for such things to be a marker of a liberal rather than a conservative. Conservative fusionism arose as an antagonist toward New Deal and FDR progressivism and the welfare state affiliated with it, so a statement by Irving Kristol draws criticism from such conservatives. Nevertheless, neoconservatism flowed through the 80s and 90s and came to a head in the 2000s with the George W. Bush administration and the wars begun during his eight-year term. Conservative leaders became associated with American exceptionalism and becoming a world moral police force rather than the isolated country seen pre-World War II. Conservatives wanted to counter what they saw as moral evil in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, yet others underneath the fusionist umbrella wanted no American involvement in foreign affairs, never mind a full declaration of war. As discussed in lecture, a need to fight the war on terrorism and to spread of democracy into the Middle East became a commonly-identified tenet of neoconservatism from the 80s onward.

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