Semicolons!

Officers who are moving into administrative positions in criminal justice often ask how they can make their writing more sophisticated. Semicolons are one answer. They are wonderful punctuation marks that writers should use more often, for two reasons:

1.  They’re impressive.

2.  They’re easy.

Maybe you’re doubting me about #2. Semicolons look fancy, so they have to be difficult, right?

Wrong. Semicolons are just like periods. That’s it!

Take a look at these examples:

Patterson walked back to his car. The hood was up, and his battery was gone. CORRECT

Patterson walked back to his car; the hood was up, and his battery was gone. CORRECT

We continued the count. Bradley’s cell was empty. CORRECT

We continued the count; Bradley’s cell was empty. CORRECT

By now you’ve probably figured out how to use semicolons. Just change the period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter (unless it’s a word that’s supposed to be capitalized, like Bradley or September).

Semicolons allow you to sound sophisticated while you’re writing short sentences. Many officers already use them; they add a professional touch to reports. (Did you notice the semicolon?)

Try them yourself! And here’s a good rule of thumb: One semicolon per paragraph. If you’re writing something very short, stick to one semicolon per page.

 

 

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 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

 

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The Reuben Foster Police Report

On February 11, 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested and charged with felony domestic violence. You can read more here. Elissa Ennis, the alleged victim, later said Foster never hit her, but the DA is still prosecuting Foster for domestic violence and other charges.

Below is a paragraph from a police report released by the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department. Today I’m going to ask you three questions about this paragraph.

 1. What is your opinion of this paragraph?

Upon arriving at the scene, police took photos of Ennis’ injuries, which included a swollen right lower lip, scratches and a cut on the back of her neck and a scrape on her left knee. She also complained of ringing and poor hearing in her left ear, which subsequently was diagnosed as a ruptured ear drum.

My answer: I’m impressed. This is sophisticated writing! The vocabulary (subsequently) and complex sentences (two which clauses and an embedded list) suggest that it was written by an officer who’s taken some college writing courses.

2. Could you write the same information without the elaborate sentences?

My answer: yes, of course. Here’s my version:

Police arrived at the scene and took photos of Ennis’ injuries. They included a swollen right lower lip, scratches and a cut on the back of her neck and a scrape on her left knee. Ennis also complained of ringing and poor hearing in her left ear. Later doctors said she had a ruptured ear drum.

3.  Which version is better: the first – with complex sentences – or the second – with simple sentences?

My answer: this is a trick question. Both versions are fine. Your goal is to record what happened at the scene and what you learned from your investigation. If you like to write sophisticated sentences, that’s great – as long as they’re clear and correct.

It’s also fine to write short, straightforward sentences…and there are important advantages to writing simply. You’re less likely to make mistakes, and your report will probably be easier to read.

I always tell officers to go for plain-and-straightforward writing. After a long and tiring shift, there’s no need to make your report sound like a bestselling novel! Just get the facts down.

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Indefinite Pronouns

I’ve often said that the words most likely to cause problems are the little, everyday ones. Today we’re going to take a close look at the pronouns it, this, that, these, and those (often called “indefinite pronouns”).

Here’s a paragraph containing several sentences with problems. See if you can figure out what’s wrong.

Davis told me about his argument with Carol. She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. It did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying. She refused to talk any further and left the room. That enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall.

The problem words are “it” and “that.” These are fine words that good writers use all the time…but carefully and thoughtfully.

Let’s look at it first:

She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. It did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying.

“It” didn’t make sense to him. What was “it”? Was it coming home late or saying her boss had given her a last-minute job to do?

Here’s a more precise version:

She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. Her explanation did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying. BETTER

Now let’s look at that:

She refused to talk any further and left the room. That enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall.

What enraged him – her refusal to talk, or seeing her leave the room?

Here’s a better version:

She refused to talk any further and left the room. Her silence enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall. BETTER

Incidentally, the technical name for this problem is indefinite pronoun reference. But there’s no need to remember that terminology as long as you resolve to be precise with pronouns. (Hmmm…precise with pronouns. There’s a nice ring to it…or, more precisely, that phrase has a nice ring to it!)

Takeaways for You

Why should you bother with this pronoun issue? Two reasons. If you’re writing an account of something that happened, you need to be precise. There’s a big difference between “it enraged her” and “his angry words enraged her.”

Second, you might be hoping to climb the career ladder – and promotions always involve more and more writing. Now is the time to learn as much as you can about professional writing (today’s pronoun issue, for example!). When that wonderful new position opens up, you’ll be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

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Sign up for our FREE Police Writer e-Newsletter and receive a free copy of “10 Days to Better Police Reports,” ready to download! Your privacy is protected: We NEVER share emails with third parties. 

 
 
____________________________________________________________

 Criminal Justice Report Writing by Jean Reynolds is available from Amazon.com for the low price of $17.95. For a free preview, click on the link or the picture below.

Updated, with a new chapter on Writing Efficiently

“It will definitely help you with your writing skills.” – Joseph E. Badger, California Association of Accident Reconstructionists Newsletter

Criminal Justice Report Writing is also available as an e-book in a variety of formats for $9.99: Click here.

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An Incident Report about Travis Reinking

On April 23, Travis Jeffrey Reinking was captured after a 34-hour manhunt. Reinking, who is 29 years old, is the suspect in a mass shooting at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. Four victims were killed and four others were injured. You can read more at this link.

Nearly two years earlier, in June 2017, police were called to a public swimming pool in Tremont, Illinois when a 27-year-old Travis Reinking jumped into the water wearing a pink woman’s housecoat. He then exposed himself to the lifeguards, who called police. Shortly afterwards, Reinking brought an assault weapon to a nearby business. Again the police were notified. No charges were filed.

If you’re working on your report writing skills – or you teach or supervise officers who are learning to write reports – I have a challenge for you. Read and evaluate the report (posted at this link) about the swimming pool incident.

* * * * * * * 

My comments:

This is a concise and professional report. The officer wrote straightforward sentences and used everyday language.

I have a few suggestions:

  • Omit “on the above date and time
  • Use active voice consistently. Here’s an example of a sentence in passive voice:

After this incident at the pool I was contacted by an employee of J&J Crane Co on Baer Road.  PASSIVE VOICE

After this incident at the pool, an employee of J&J Crane Co on Baer Road contacted me.  ACTIVE VOICE

  • Passive voice presents a potential problem in one of the sentences in the report: “Travis was searched since he had a weapon earlier in the day.” Who searched him? Better wording would be, “I searched Travis since he had a weapon earlier in the day.”
  • Use “of,” not “have,” as a helping verb:

This would of have been right before the pool incident.

  • I noticed a jargon problem in the report: the word advised, which appears four times. Better choices are told, said, and stated. (The report does use told and stated multiple times.)

Overall, though, this is an excellent report.

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Write Plainly

As a criminal justice professional, you should strive to write plainly, efficiently, and clearly. You’ll save time, and so will your readers.  Here are some words and expressions that can (and should!) be simplified:

Avoid

Use Instead

utilize

use

single-click

click

for the purpose of

to

in the event that

if

if or when

if

the month of November

November

blue in color

blue

large in size

large

pull-down menu

menu

scream and yell

scream

brand-new

new

lower down

lower

PIN number

PIN

preplan

plan

preregister

register

For more suggestions about clarity and efficiency, go to www.PlainLanguage.gov.

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One Idea Per Sentence

Are long sentences bad – or good? It’s a question many officers wonder about, especially if they mistakenly believe that a long sentence is a good sentence.

That’s not true!

If you’re aiming to become a topnotch criminal justice writer, you would be wise to adopt a rule that many professional writers follow: One idea per sentence.

Shorter sentences bestow several advantages. First, they’re easier to read–a huge advantage when you’re busy preparing for a court or disciplinary hearing. Second, they have greater clarity than longer sentences, which can be confusing.

Most important, shorter sentences have fewer errors. As sentences get longer, the likelihood of subject/verb errors, parallelism mistakes, and dangling modifiers increases.

Short sentences don’t have to be choppy and juvenile. You can always join two short sentences with a semicolon (be sure to skip the second capital letter).

I searched the suspect. He had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

I searched the suspect; he had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

You can also use who or which to join sentences.

I searched the suspect. He had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

I searched the suspect, who had five hundred-dollar bills in his right pocket.

And if you know your comma rules (they’re not difficult!) you can choose from a variety of sentence patterns.

One of the best ways to write a sophisticated report without sacrificing clarity is to employ bullet style whenever you have a list of information. (Don’t try to write an entire report in bullets!) Here’s a paragraph in conventional sentence style:

I searched Dickert’s locker. I found three $20 bills between the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine. There was a pair of dice in the pocket of a uniform shirt. I found five $10 bills between the pages of his Bible. I found three unopened decks of cards at the bottom of a laundry bag.

And here’s the same information in bullet style. (Each item begins with a “bullet”).

I searched Dickert’s locker and found:

  • three $20 bills between the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine
  • a pair of dice in the pocket of a uniform shirt
  • five $10 bills between the pages of his Bible
  • three unopened decks of cards at the bottom of a laundry bag

Much better, isn’t it? (To listen to a podcast about bullet style, click here.)

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Comparisons Are Easy

“Better than,” “as good as,” “rather than”: These kinds of comparisons often appear in police and corrections reports. The good news is that they’re useful expressions, easy to write and understand.

The bad news is…well, maybe it’s not really bad news. But there are some pitfalls to watch for when you’re making comparisons.

You need to remember that our English language is often concerned with the numbers two and three:

Use -er comparisons (better, faster, older, and similar words) when you’re comparing two people or things. (The word worse and phrases beginning with more also fall into this category.)

Use -est words when you’re comparing three or more people or things. (The word best and phrases beginning with most also fall into this category.)

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. Take a look at these examples:

Officer Kaplan has been with the agency longer than Officer Brown. CORRECT  (comparing two people)

Officer Morgan is the most experienced officer on the force. CORRECT  (comparing three or more people)

If you’d spent some time riding with Larry and Tom, you’d know that Larry is the better driver.  CORRECT  (comparing two people)

Let’s use an everyday example that might make the rule more clear. You can’t be the worst child in your family unless your parents had at least three children.

If there are only two children, you’re the worse child. (Or, hopefully, the better one!) Best, worst, most, and so on require three or more people or things.

The second pointer is that you should use than (not then) in comparisons.

I’d rather work on Saturday than Sunday. CORRECT

Alan is usually more thorough than she is. CORRECT

One last point (and it’s an important one): When you’re writing a comparison sentence, be extra-careful with pronouns (he, she, I, we, and so on).

Take a look at the last example. Many people would (incorrectly) write it this way:

Alan is usually more thorough than her. INCORRECT

If you add one more word (“is,” in this sentence), you’ll get the sentence right every time:

Alan is usually more thorough than she is. CORRECT

Try this one:

Officer Langan writes as well as (I, me).

Add the extra word (“do”), and it’s easy to finish the sentence:

Officer Langan writes as well as I do.

Not difficult at all!

 

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Quiz Yourself on Passive Voice

Professional criminal justice reports avoid passive voice because it does not answer an important question: Who performed the action?

If you’re testifying in court, trying to remember what happened six months ago, a passive-voice sentence in your report can be confusing:

A blood-stained t-shirt was found under a rosebush in the back yard. PASSIVE VOICE

Who found the t-shirt?

Here’s an active-voice version of this sentence that clearly states the facts:

I found a blood-stained t-shirt under a rosebush in the back yard. ACTIVE VOICE

(To learn how to identify passive voice, click here.)

Here’s a short quiz to see if you can identify passive-voice sentences. The answers are stated below.

  1. The roof was replaced two years ago.
  2. John and Mike replaced the roof.
  3. We were wondering if you’d like to spend a weekend at our beach house.
  4. The key can be found under a rock to the left of the front door.
  5. Taxis will be waiting at the bus station.
  6. Louis is interested in a career in the medical field.
  7. Registered nurses are being paid top salaries right now.
  8. Nurses are eagerly sought by hospitals everywhere.
  9. Louis was working in a low-paying service job.
  10. He was told there’s not much of a future for him there.

Here are the answers:

  1. The roof was replaced two years ago.  PASSIVE  [Who replaced it?]
  2. John and Mike replaced the roof.  ACTIVE
  3. We were wondering if you’d like to spend a weekend at our beach house.  ACTIVE
  4. The key can be found under a rock to the left of the front door.  PASSIVE  [Who will find it?]
  5. Taxis will be waiting at the bus station.  ACTIVE
  6. Louis is interested in a career in the medical field.  ACTIVE
  7. Registered nurses are being paid top salaries right now.  PASSIVE  [Who pays them?]
  8. Nurses are eagerly sought by hospitals everywhere.  PASSIVE  [Who seeks them?]
  9. Louis was working in a low-paying service job.  ACTIVE
  10. He was told there’s not much of a future for him there.  PASSIVE  [Who told him this?]

And here are active-voice rewrites of the passive-voice sentences:

1.  The landlord replaced the roof two years ago.

4.  You can find the key under a rock to the left of the front door.

7.  Hospitals are paying registered nurses top salaries right now.

8.  Hospitals everywhere are eagerly seeking nurses.

10.  His supervisor told him there’s not much of a future for him there.

 

 

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The Vince McMahon Police Report

A 2006 police report has come to light accusing Vince McMahon (WWE CEO and chairman) of forcing himself on a woman in a tanning salon. The Florida prosecutor decided not to press charges. You can read the report at this link: http://www.totalprosports.com/2018/01/27/police-report-leaked-of-vince-mcmahon-showing-his-nudes-and-trying-to-force-himself-on-woman-in-tanning-salon/

It’s an excellent report – thorough and objective. Here’s a sentence that impressed me: 

She pushed him away using her hands on his chest.

Why do I like that sentence? The officer recorded what he saw. Detailed reporting can help build a case in court.

One change I would recommend is more attention to brevity. Several sentences could be written more efficiently:

Prior to using the bed, he asked if she would take a picture of him with his camera phone to send to his girlfriend in New York.

McMahon used bed 113 for the allotted time. Upon completion of the tanning session, McMahon started talking to X again.

She picked up the cleaning solution and proceeded to walk walked down the hallway to clean the bed. 

I have one more comment. I always hope that I’ll read an entire report without encountering any passive voice. This report (as so often happens!) disappointed me. Here’s the last sentence in the report:

A sworn written and taped statement was completed and submitted into evidence.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who wrote and taped the statement? Who submitted it? There’s no name. If there are questions in court about the statement, there’s no record of which officer performed those actions. Not professional.

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Understanding Semicolons

A semicolon is like a period, but it’s not followed by a capital letter. The good news is that semicolons can add professionalism to your police and corrections reports. The better news is that semicolons are even more useful when you’re promoted and start tackling a wider variety of writing tasks.

The best news is that semicolons are easy to use because they’re so similar to periods.

Here’s how to do it:

1.  Find two sentences that go together in some way.

2.  Change the period between them to a semicolon.

3.  Change the capital letter to lower case (unless it’s a name or other word that needs to be capitalized).

You’re done!

Please note that what you don’t do is pick out a long sentence, find the midpoint, and stick a semicolon there.

Here are some examples.

Clare was worried about John. He had stopped spending time with his old friends. CORRECT

Clare was worried about John; he had stopped spending time with his old friends. CORRECT – SEMICOLON

Mark tried hiding the car keys. Judy found them anyway and took his car. CORRECT

Mark tried hiding the car keys; Judy found them anyway and took his car. CORRECT – SEMICOLON

Don’t spend too much time worrying about the requirement about two sentences that relate to each other. In most writing tasks, one sentence logically follows another. Most officers find it easy to select two sentences that can be joined with a semicolon.

Here are some guidelines for using semicolons:

  • Use a semicolon occasionally to add a professional touch to your writing.
  • Don’t overdo it. One semicolon per paragraph or report is a good rule of thumb.
  • Remember this principle: Periods are followed by capital letters. Semicolons are followed by lower-case letters.

That’s it. Happy semicolons! (They really do impress people. Start using them!)

 

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