Comma or Hyphen?

Here’s a thorny little problem : What punctuation mark do you use when you put two descriptive words (adjectives) together? As you climb the career ladder in criminal justice, you’re likely to encounter this issue more and more often.

Here are some examples:

I finally found my long missing notes from last year’s conference.

It was a long tiring meeting.

That was a wrong headed decision from the mayor.

The academy needs to purchase more desks for left handed recruits.

My next door neighbor asked me about job openings in the department.

The captain brought back some new exciting ideas from the national meeting.

You have two choices in sentences like these: a hyphen (-) or a comma. How do you know which one to use?

Look at the examples above to see what you think. (It’s easier than it looks!) The answers are below.

Hint: if the two words go together, use a hyphen: low-fat diet. If it’s more like a list, use a comma: dark, cluttered room.

* * * * * * *


1.  I finally found my long missing notes from last year’s conference.

Long and missing go together. Use a hyphen:

I finally found my long-missing notes from last year’s conference. CORRECT

2.  It was a long tiring meeting.

Was it a long meeting that was tiring? Yes. Use a comma:

It was a long, tiring meeting. CORRECT

3.  That was a wrong headed decision from the mayor.

Wrong and headed go together. Use a hyphen:

That was a wrong-headed decision from the mayor. CORRECT

4.  The academy needs to purchase more desks for left handed recruits.

Left and handed go together. Use a hyphen:

The academy needs to purchase more desks for left-handed recruits. CORRECT

5.  My next door neighbor asked me about job openings in the department.

Next and door go together. Use a hyphen:

My next-door neighbor asked me about job openings in the department. CORRECT

6.  The captain brought back some new exciting ideas from the national meeting.

Are these new ideas that are exciting? Yes. Use a comma:

The captain brought back some new, exciting ideas from the national meeting. CORRECT

a checkmark


Writing Sentences with Interrupters

Today’s topic is Comma Rule 3: Use two commas with an interrupter. An interrupter is something that breaks up a sentence. One comma takes your voice down, and another comma brings your voice back up.

Here’s a famous example. You can hear the commas if you read it aloud!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the group that’s running this scheme.

This is an extremely useful sentence pattern when you’re writing police and corrections reports. It’s even more useful in the types of writing that supervisors and managers have to do. It has a sophisticated (but easy!) feel that professional writers appreciate.

Today you’ll have a chance to practice Comma Rule 3. Both an exercise and answers appear below.

Here are the basic things you need to know about Comma Rule 3:

  • Use a pair of commas when your voice drops to signify a change in a sentence.
  • Always use two commas, never one.
  • Often (but not always) Comma Rule 3 sentences include a who or which phrase.
  • You’ve been using interrupters in conversation all your life, but you may not have been taught how to punctuate them.

Here are two examples:

Mrs. Jones, the neighbor who had called 911, told me the screams began at approximately 10:30. CORRECT

Inmate Withers, who works in the staff canteen, said he saw Inmate Brown punch Inmate Coleman in the face. CORRECT

(If you’d like to learn more about Comma Rule 3, this website features an instructional page and a short instructional video.)

Here’s a practice exercise for you to try. Read each sentence aloud, listening for a voice change. Insert commas where needed. Answers appear below.

1.  Patterson Correctional Institution which opened last month is already overcrowded.

2.  Sergeant Rice who teaches in the academy part-time has some good suggestions about preparing for the state certification exam.

3.  During the winter when many homeless people migrate to Florida the crime rate increases here.

4.  Our new evidence room which opened last month is better organized and more secure.

5.  Inmate Gleason’s girlfriend who visited him yesterday may have supplied the cocaine.

Here are the answers:

1.  Patterson Correctional Institution, which opened last month, is already overcrowded.

2.  Sergeant Rice, who teaches in the academy part-time, has some good suggestions about preparing for the state certification exam.

3.  During the winter, when many homeless people migrate to Florida, the crime rate increases here.

4.  Our new evidence room, which is located down the hall, is better organized and more secure.

5.  Inmate Gleason’s girlfriend, who visited him yesterday, may have supplied the cocaine.

Keyboard with computer skills written on one key 


Who Is She?

I’ve often said that it’s the simple words that get officers into trouble when they write reports. Today we’re going to look at she and her. Easy words, right?

Wrong. There’s a problem called indefinite pronoun reference that often creates confusion.

Here’s a typical mistake. Can you figure out what’s wrong?

Martha said she had not been in touch with her daughter in quite a while because her telephone wasn’t working. INCORRECT (Whose phone wasn’t working? Not clear)

Whose telephone wasn’t working? When there are two women in a sentence, she becomes a confusing (or indefinite) word.

Be specific about identities when you’re using pronouns (he, she, him, her, they). Here’s a more clear version of the same sentence:

Martha said she had not been in touch with her daughter in quite a while because her daughter’s telephone wasn’t working. CORRECT

But maybe it was Martha’s telephone that wasn’t working. When you write your report, you could write the sentence this way:

Because Martha’s telephone wasn’t working, she said she hadn’t been in touch with her daughter in quite a while.  CORRECT

The same principle applies when there are two males in a sentence. When you write your report, make sure you’ve clarified who is who:

John’s brother said he often returned from work after midnight.  INCORRECT (Who returned after midnight? Not clear)

John said that his brother often returned from work after midnight.  CORRECT

John’s brother said that John often returned from work after midnight.  CORRECT



The “Although” Problem

If I had to make a list of troublesome words, although would be high on the list. Yes, it’s a useful word, and – surprise! – it’s easy to use. But there’s a particular error that’s so common that I’ve even caught professional writers doing it.

Can you spot what’s wrong with this example? (If you do, give yourself a gold star!)

Chan told me she usually locked the back door before she went to bed. Although, that night she forgot. INCORRECT

There are two problems with that sentence. First, NEVER put a comma after although. Never. Don’t do it!

Second, anything that begins with although is an extra idea and must be attached to a sentence. (For a complete explanation, click here and read about Comma Rule 1.)

Here are three ways to fix today’s sentence. Take your pick – they’re all correct.

Chan told me she usually locked the back door before she went to bed although that night she forgot. CORRECT

Although she forgot to do it that night, Chan told me she usually locked the back door before she went to bed. CORRECT

Chan told me she usually locked the back door before she went to bed. However, that night she forgot. CORRECT

(That third correction is an interesting one, isn’t it? Often when writers mistakenly put a comma after although, the word they’re really looking for is however. It’s a fix that works much of the time.)

sticky notes asking if it's right or wrong


What’s a Run-on Sentence?

Run-on sentences are serious errors. If there’s a run-on in one of your reports, very likely your supervisor will point it out to you. If a run-on finds its way into other professional writing, it could damage your reputation.

So – what’s a run-on sentence, and how do you avoid this error? There’s good news: it’s easy. Write short sentences. Start each one with a person, place, or thing. End each one with a period. You’ll never write another run-on!

Let’s begin by looking at a police report that was in the news recently. While Joseph Trillo was running for governor of Rhode Island, journalists found a 1975 police report about an alleged attack on a 13-year-old boy. You can read the story and police report here. (Trillo lost the election.)

There are several long sentences in the report. Here’s one of them:

[Trillo] stated the youth kept on yelling out, “fuck this and fuck that” every other word was “fuck and he stated this was very upsetting to his wife and he went over and spoke with the subject and he stated when he was speaking with X he did have a tub of caulking compound in his hand and he was waving it at the youth however at no time did he strike the youth.

That’s a 74-word sentence. Too long! But it’s important to note that it doesn’t become a run-on until the very end. Grammatically speaking, the only problem is this part of the sentence:

however at no time did he strike the youth.

However is not a joining word. It starts a new sentence. So it should have been written like this:

However, at no time did he strike the youth.  CORRECT

But let’s go back to my point that the sentence is too long. Much too long. The best writers don’t string sentences together with and…and…and. What you do is write short, crisp sentences. They’re easy to write – and easy to read.

So here’s my version:

[Trillo] stated the youth kept on yelling out, “fuck this and fuck that.” Every other word was “fuck.” This was very upsetting to his wife. Trillo spoke with the subject. Trillo had a tub of caulking compound in his hand. He was waving it at the youth. However, at no time did he strike the youth.  CORRECT

My version is easier to follow – and it’s shorter (56 words instead of 74). Because police officers are busy men and women, one important goal is to do paperwork efficiently.

Here’s another suggestion: write Trillo’s statement as a list. You can do this when all the information comes from one person.

Trillo told me:

  •  the youth kept on yelling out, “fuck this and fuck that”
  • every other word was “fuck”
  • This was very upsetting to Trillo’s wife
  • Trillo had a tub of caulking compound in his hand
  • he was waving it at the youth
  • at no time did he strike the youth

* * * * *

I said earlier that many people mistakenly think that any long sentence is a run-on. Not true! So – what’s a run-on sentence?

It’s a sentence that needs a period:

John arrived early he waited outside.  INCORRECT

The cut was bleeding it needed medical attention.  INCORRECT

The boy fell I helped him get up.  INCORRECT

How do you fix a run-on? With a period:

John arrived early. He waited outside.  CORRECT

The cut was bleeding. It needed medical attention.  CORRECT

The boy fell. I helped him get up.  CORRECT

Now let me give you a trick. How do you know that you need a period? (It’s never correct to use a comma to fix a run-on sentence.) Very simple: A sentence starts with a person, place, or thing. (Incidentally, it is a thing, and it starts a new sentence.)

Try these. Can you find the run-on sentences? (Answers below.)

Children love Halloween, they enjoy dressing up in costumes.

I had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch twice last week.

Bill is great with dogs and helps train our department’s canines.

Gretchen is moving Connecticut will be her new home.

Here are the answers. (I used bold to mark the person-place-or-thing that begins a new sentence.)

Children love Halloween. They enjoy dressing up in costumes.

I had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch twice last week.

Bill is great with dogs and helps train our department’s canines.

Gretchen is moving. Connecticut will be her new home.

Joseph Trillo at a microphone

   Joseph Trillo



Try Writing a Report!

Here’s a challenge for you: Read the scenario below (taken from an actual event) and decide what type of report you’d write, what you’d need to include, and why. (Click on the link to review the four types of reports.) 

At 10:15 pm on June 13, police were called to assist EMS with a woman who was found lying under a bush at an apartment complex on Second Street. She was conscious and said she had fallen and couldn’t get up on her own. A neighbor identified the woman and told officers she takes medication for a mental condition. She was taken to an emergency room for observation.

What did you decide?

This is a Type 1 report. There’s no arrest, and no follow-up is needed from the police. The report should simply state what happened and what actions you performed to help the woman.

 *  *  *  *  *

Now try writing the report yourself! Invent any details needed. When you’re finished, compare your version to the one below. (Note that departmental policies vary. Your version of the report might be different.)

 *  *  *  *  *

Here’s how the report might be written:

At 10:15 PM on June 13, I was dispatched to the Pembroke Arms Apartments on Second Street to assist a woman who was found lying under a bush. I arrived at 10:19 PM and saw JoAnn Howard sitting down on the sidewalk. She was talking to another woman, Fran Lane. 

Howard told me she fell and couldn’t get up. Then she passed out. When she came to, she saw Fran Lane, a neighbor, standing over her.

Two EMS paramedics arrived while I was talking to Howard. While they assisted Howard, I talked to Fran Lane.

Lane told me that she lives at 211 Second Street. She was walking home from the convenience store on West Avenue. She saw feet sticking out from under a bush and stopped to investigate. She and Howard are friends. Lane told me that Howard takes medication for a mental condition. Howard woke up a few minutes before I arrived. Lane helped her sit up.

The paramedics evaluated Howard and drove her to the emergency room at Rose Hall Hospital for observation.

How did you do?

Now I have a question for you. Why would you document an incident when no crime was committed?

There are several reasons. The report might be useful if further action is taken later on (such as Baker Act proceedings).

Consider also the possibility that someone eventually files a lawsuit on the woman’s behalf. The police report could help show that the incident was handled appropriately and professionally.



Thinking about a Police Report

Writing a police report requires some complex thinking skills. Here’s an opportunity to practice those skills.

 Read the summary below and make a list of issues that might come up as you prepare to write your report. When you’re finished, compare your ideas with the list below.

A 19-year-old woman stopped at the flashing red light at Shaffer Road and Bee Line Highway. Then she pulled into the intersection into the path of vehicle driven by a 73-year-old man that she didn’t see. The two vehicles collided, causing severe damage. A passenger in the  man’s vehicle was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

Here are some issues you might have thought about:

  • This is a Type 2 report (the officer didn’t see the incident happen and has to conduct an investigation).
  • Sources are needed for some of the information. How do you know that she really did stop at the traffic signal, and how do you know she didn’t see the other vehicle?
  • How are you going to document the damage to the vehicles? “Severe damage” is probably too vague for a police report. You might list some of the effects of the accident or use your cell phone to photograph the vehicles.

One more point: Writing in passive voice (“was taken to the hospital”) is a bad habit that many officers struggle to overcome. If there’s a court hearing later on, it might be important to know who transported the passenger.

Develop the habit of using active voice (“Officer Traneski transported the passenger to the hospital”) in every sentence.

How did you do?

neurons in a human brain


How Would You Write This Report?

If you’re a student in a police academy, you might be shown a video and asked to write a report about it.

Let’s try it. Click the link to read a news story about Philip Standefer, a police officer in Lubbock, Texas, who saved a driver’s life through quick thinking. Then watch the video below. (It’s only 47 seconds long.)

How would you write your report? The news story is incomplete, so you can invent some details (such as the name of the driver of the van and the other officers who arrived at the scene). (Don’t cheat! Do it now, before you look at my version.)

Answer: This situation calls for a Type 3 report (and a commendation for Officer Standefer!). What’s special about Type 3 reports is that you, the officer, become part of the story. (In Type 1 and Type 2 reports, the events happened before you arrived.)

Type 3 reports require special care because you’re dealing with two stories – before and after. Don’t make this complicated for yourself.

Officer Standefer might write something like this (I invented some facts):

At approximately 1:19 AM on September 17, 2012, I, Philip Standefer, was standing at the 3700 block of 19th Street talking to a driver about a traffic accident.

I saw a flower van heading north on 19th Street at high speed. It crossed the median. I saw that Sarah Beaty, 19, was standing in the path of the vehicle. I pushed her away.

Sarah fell onto the road. The van missed her.

The van crashed into a patrol car, which then hit another patrol car. I was pinned between both cars. I saw that my leg was pointing in the wrong direction.

Officers Calpen and Tenley arrived and called for an ambulance. The medics gave me first aid and drove me to Trinity Hospital.

Officer Tenley arrested Sally Cooper, driver of the van. He notified Cooper of her Miranda rights. Then he transported her to the county jail.

Because departmental policies differ, your report might be different from mine.

But the basic principles are always the same. An effective police report sticks strictly to the facts. You should omit your thinking processes (“I suspected the driver was intoxicated,” “I was afraid the car would injure Sarah”).

There’s a lovely follow-up to this story. ABC News brought Sarah Beaty and Officer Standefer back together so that she could thank him for saving her life. You can read about their meeting here.

Well done, Officer Standefer!


Four Types of Reports

Report writing can seem overwhelming. There’s so much information to process! And when you’re just learning how to write reports, it seems like each one is different.

The good news is that – when you have some experience – there are only four basic types of police reports. The even better news is that each one adds something to the previous type – sort of like going up a flight of stairs. So you’re not starting over with each new type of report – you’re building.

symbols representing stairs

It’s easy to understand and use the four types of reports when you understand how each type builds on the previous one, gradually becoming more complex. (You can download a free chart that explains the four types of reports and the special characteristics of each one.)

In Type #1, the officer is a primarily recorder. (Incident reports fall into this category.) Someone calls to report a crime, and you write down what happened. Examples might be a theft, assault, or sexual attack.

Type #2 is more complex. Now the officer is also an investigator. After a break-in, for example, you might look for the point of entry, take fingerprints, and question neighbors about what they saw or heard.

In this type of report, you have to record what you did and what you found. You also have to demonstrate that you followed procedures effectively. The key factors here are that you didn’t solve the crime and didn’t make an arrest.

In Type #3, the officer becomes a participant. You might intervene in a domestic dispute, settle a fight in a bar, chase a person suspected of robbing a convenience store. Now you have to report not only what others did, but what you did. Often you’ll make an arrest; other possibilities are calling for a backup or medical assistance. You might also ask protective services to get involved.

The complications here are that there’s a back story—what happened before you arrived—that has to be coordinated with your story, plus the additional challenge of demonstrating that you followed procedures and guidelines.

Finally, in Type #4, the officer sets the story in motion. There’s no back story. You see a crime in progress and intervene. For example, you might see an erratic driver and make a traffic stop. Since you set the investigation in motion, you have to be particularly careful to establish probable cause for getting involved.

These four types of reports all share some common characteristics, but they also have special requirements. Understanding these four types and challenges will build your confidence and help you write more effective reports.

Four Types of Reports Resources for you:

a flight of


Avoid Jargon!

Because I’m always looking for examples for this blog, I signed up with Google to receive a daily email with links to police reports in the news.

Today Google sent me six links – a bonanza! I’m going to post excerpts from two of them. See if you can spot what bothered me about them:

Advises she cannot see anyone but possibly believes one subject left in a vehicle. Arrest made. Report taken.

Caller on Clinton St. reports stray dog attacked their pet dog and injured its face. Advises stray is locked in their garage at this time. 

Here it is: the word advises. It’s police jargon that makes reports sound weird to anyone outside the criminal justice field. I don’t “advise” a waiter that I want spaghetti: I tell him. That’s normal English, and it’s the word you should use in your police reports.

Reserve advise for situations when there’s actual advice. Here’s a sentence that really does contain advice:

The post office advises everyone to do their holiday shipping early.  CORRECT 

Note that advise does not mean “tell.” Said or told is a better choice:

Jim told me that he’ll pick up the dry cleaning on his way home.  CORRECT 

Happily, one of the links in today’s police report email had a jargon-free sentence:

Chinese police report 14 children have been injured in an attack by a knife-wielding assailant at a kindergarten in the western city of Chongqing.  CORRECT

Are you ever guilty of jargon? If so, are you working on breaking your jargon habit? I sincerely hope so!