Syntax Problems

I often hear from academy instructors and agency officials who worry about the poorly written reports that come across their desks. What is to be done with a cadet or officer who writes a sentence like this one?

Four CDs were recovered from the defendant, which he had conceal those items by stuffing them inside his jacket.

This sentence (it’s real, by the way) is disastrously wrong.  It’s hard to believe this person is capable of ever writing a competent report. So: what advice would you give the person who wrote it – and the concerned instructor or supervisor who read it?

Here’s my advice. First – and this may surprise you – there’s no need to panic. Very likely the writer was trying too hard to sound smart and sophisticated.

Second, there’s a cure: Write short, straightforward sentences. I have never – in all my years of experience – met a cadet or officer who couldn’t meet that requirement. Forget about trying to impress others with complicated syntax. Make each fact a separate sentence, like this:

I recovered four CDs from the defendant. He had stuffed them inside his jacket.  CORRECT

or

I found four CDs stuffed inside the defendant’s jacket.  CORRECT

So here’s my recommendation to anyone who’s nervous about report writing: Write shorter sentences. Start each one with a person, place, or thing. (In a police report, it’s usually best to start with a person.)

 

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