Fixing Verb Problems

Today I’m going to talk about fixing verb problems. (Verbs are action words like go, shoot, see. Forms of be are also verbs: is, are, was, were, and so on.) We’re going to focus on two common mistakes.

1. Could have, could’ve (correct!) vs. could of (wrong!)

I’ve often said that it’s the small, everyday words that get writers into trouble. Of is a good example, especially when you’re thinking about verbs.

Unfortunately many people (including officers!) sometimes write of when they mean could’ve or could have. (Could’ve is a contraction of could have.) When you’re speaking, “could’ve” and “could of” sound the same. As a result, of creeps into a sentence even though it doesn’t belong there.

The same problem crops up with should have and would have. Be careful to write should’ve, should have, would’ve, or would have – not should of or would of!

Mattson could of left through the bedroom window.  WRONG

Mattson could’ve left through the bedroom window. CORRECT

Mattson could have left through the bedroom window. CORRECT

It’s a good idea to write out “have” in instead of abbreviating it. That practice will help you avoid the embarrassment of using of incorrectly.

2.  It’s easy to forget to add the –ed ending for verbs, for the same reason: You don’t clearly hear that –ed when you’re talking. Read the following sentence aloud, and you’ll hear what I mean:

Joan had hoped for a promotion, and she finally received the good news this morning.

Chances are you barely heard the -ed in hoped and received. That means it’s easy to forget about that -ed when you’re writing, especially if you’re tired or rushed.

So here’s what you need to know. The -ed ending is often necessary when you combine a verb with has, had, have, be, been, is, are, was, and were:

Lucy has lived on Tenth Street for two years.

Although we have wished for a new building for a long time, we’re unlikely to get it.

The report is finished.

Several people are already lined up and waiting.

And so on. These tips are easy to apply if you concentrate and double-check your reports – and they’ll help you avoid many errors!



A Bullet List Can Save Time!

Do you ever find yourself writing a report with a lot of tiresome repetition?

Jones said she came home from work at 5:25 pm. Jones said she noticed the back door was open. Jones said she was frightened. Jones said she called 911. Jones said she then went to a neighbor’s house to wait for police to arrive. Jones said she didn’t notice any other suspicious activity at her home.  REPETITIOUS

A bullet list can be a great timesaver. Notice you don’t try to write your whole report in list format! Use it only as needed, to save time:

I arrived at about 6:10 PM and talked to Jones. She was watching for me from a neighbor’s house. While waiting for her, I noticed that her front door was open.

Jones told me:

  • she came home from work at 5:25 pm
  • she noticed the back door was open
  • she was frightened and called 911
  • he then went to a neighbor’s house to wait for police to arrive
  • he didn’t notice any other suspicious activity at her home

Still puzzled about lists? Here are two things to think about. First, you’ve probably been writing lists all your life!

Second, it’s common practice to write a letter, a report, or any other task and include a list. Suppose a young couple has a new baby. They’re planning to visit some friends for a weekend. The friend asked what supplies to have on hand. The couple could write a letter – as usual – about how much they’re looking forward to the visit – and include a list of needed items. (For an introduction to lists, click here; to listen to a podcast about lists, click here.)

This practice activity will help you become proficient with timesaving lists.

Instructions: Rewrite the facts below in bullets. Scroll down for suggested answers.

1.  Patterson noticed many things were wrong when she entered her bedroom. Dresser drawers were overturned and emptied on the floor. The lock on her jewelry box was broken. The jewelry box was emptied on her bed. Her favorite gold necklace was missing. A platinum diamond ring was missing.

2.  After talking to the bartender, I entered a private room in the back. I saw a man and woman were screaming at each other. Although a little girl was kicking the man’s legs, he paid no attention to her. While all this was going on, an older woman was picking up shards of glass from the floor.

3.  Baxter said he’d left his wallet on the front seat while he ran into the McDonald’s to use the bathroom. His friend Cunningham was sitting in the passenger seat. When Baxter returned to his car, both Cunningham and the wallet were gone.


Note: These are suggestions only. Answers may vary.

1.  When Patterson entered her bedroom, she noticed the following:

  • Dresser drawers were overturned and emptied on the floor
  • The lock on her jewelry box was open
  • The jewelry box was emptied on her bed
  • A gold necklace and a platinum diamond ring were missing

2.  After talking to the bartender, I entered a private room in the back and saw:

  • a man and woman screaming at each other
  • a little girl kicking the man’s legs
  • an older woman picking up shards of glass from the floor

3.  Baxter told me:

  • He ran into the McDonald’s to use the bathroom
  • He left his wallet on the front seat
  • His friend Cunningham was in the passenger seat
  • A few minutes later he returned to his car
  • Both Cunningham and the wallet were gone


Police Terminology You Should Know

Criminal justice professionals use a specialized vocabulary that every officer should know. Here is some police terminology that you should be careful to use correctly:

Burglary: This is a break-in without the use of force against a victim. If someone steals a television set from an unoccupied vacation house, the crime is classified as a burglary.

Robbery:  When the suspect uses force to steal, the crime is classified as a robbery. Most convenience store crimes are robberies.

Adult: Generally a person 18 years of age or older.

Aggravated assault: Usually involves both a weapon and severe injury.

Bias crime (also called hate crime): Not just a crime by a person who is prejudiced toward a particular group. To prosecute a “bias”(or “hate”) crime, you must show that hate motivated the crime.

Drunkenness: This term is applied for situations involving alcoholic beverages, but it excludes driving under the influence.

DUI: Driving under the influence includes both alcohol and drugs.

Alcohol: A tasteless and odorless substance. You may have difficulty in court if you claim that you smelled alcohol on a suspect’s breath. Instead you could say, “I smelled an alcoholic beverage.”


Another Perspective on Police Reports: Crime Statistics

Police officers quite naturally tend to take an up-close-and-personal view of the reports they write: Is my report complete? Did I get the facts right? Are there any grammar and usage mistakes to correct?

But a recent story in a Baltimore newspaper is a good reminder that police reports can be viewed from a much larger context. They provide crime statistics and valuable data about trends in criminal activity. The article in the Baltimore Sun notes that hate incidents – most of them directed at African-Americans –  surged 40 percent last year.

The Baltimore data was collected as part of a project involving newsrooms across the US. You should also know about an even larger and more complex undertaking coordinated by the FBI: Uniform Crime Reporting. Police departments all over the country send crime data to the FBI, which collects, interprets, and publishes statistics based on that data.

Every year the FBI publishes four reports (available free from the UCR website): Crime in the United StatesNational Incident-Based Reporting System, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, and Hate Crime Statistics.

The FBI data is collected from 18,000 sources across the US. Highly skilled statisticians crunch the numbers, which give a useful perspective on what law enforcement is dealing with in the ongoing fight against crime. The UCR project is one more reminder of the professionalism and commitment to excellence that characterize the criminal justice field.

2014 Crime Data from the FBI


Identifying Passive Voice

Passive voice often causes problems in criminal justice reports. (Here’s a typical passive voice sentence: The vehicle was searched.) It’s easy to see how passive voice can cause problems, especially in an investigation or court hearing: The sentence doesn’t tell who performed the search.

In general, you should avoid using passive voice in your reports. Be careful, however, not to be fooled into “correcting” sentences that were right in the first place. Make sure a sentence is really passive before you change it.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about:

The suspects were questioned.  PASSIVE VOICE

While we were questioning the subjects, Officer Brown arrived at the scene.  ACTIVE VOICE

“We were questioning” is active voice (OK to use) because you know that we were doing it.

Now let’s look at a series of sentences. Can you see which are passive and which are active? Scroll down for the answers.

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.

Three sobriety tests were administered.

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.

Both witnesses were questioned.

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.

Here are the sentences again, with the passive sentences labeled:

Jones was seen running away from the convenience store.  PASSIVE  (Who saw him?)

Jones was carrying a six-pack of beer and a bottle of white wine.  √

Three sobriety tests were administered.  PASSIVE  (Who administered them?)

Patterson was looking in his wallet for his driver’s license.  √

Both witnesses were questioned.  PASSIVE  (Who questioned them?)

Finch was having difficulty answering the questions.  √

Reminder: Passive voice is acceptable only when you don’t know who performed an action. Otherwise, use active voice.

The two passive voice sentences below are acceptable because the officer writing the report doesn’t know who broke into the store and who took the money and liquor:

The store was broken into at around midnight.  [PASSIVE – OK]

Fifty dollars and five bottles of liquor were taken.  [PASSIVE – OK]

passive voice test


Look at the Beginning of a Sentence

Warnings of possible sentence problems often show up at the beginning of a sentence. Here are four tips you’ll use again and again:

1.  Anything that begins with a person, place, or thing is probably a real sentence and should end with a period.

Donna had questions about my report.  SENTENCE

If it doesn’t begin with a person, place, or thing, it’s probably an extra idea and should a) end with a comma and b) be attached to a real sentence.

Because Donna had questions about my report,  EXTRA IDEA

Because Donna had questions about my report, I decided to revise it.  SENTENCE

(Click here to learn about Comma Rule 1.)

2.  Remember that it is a thing. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.

I pushed on the door, it wouldn’t open.  INCORRECT

I pushed on the door. It wouldn’t open. CORRECT

3.  The beginning of the sentence usually tells you who or what the sentence is about. That information will make you more likely to get the rest of the sentence right.

Use of illegal substances (has/have) increased in this county.

Focus on the word use, and you’ll know immediately that the verb should be has. [Use…has]

Use of illegal substances has increased in this county. CORRECT

(Click here to read about Subject-Verb Agreement Rule 4.)

4.  Be especially careful about starting sentences with -ing words. Of course it’s correct to start a sentence with a word ending in -ing: But you risk writing a sentence fragment or a dangling modifier.

Buttoning his jacket as he ran to his car.  FRAGMENT

He was buttoning his jacket as he ran to his car. CORRECT

Buttoning his jacket, his cell phone fell out of the pocket.  DANGLING MODIFIER

While he was buttoning his jacket, his cell phone fell out of the pocket. CORRECT

Here’s a suggestion that will pay off again and again: Look at the beginning of a sentence and think about possible problems. Try it!


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


Editing Software

If you’re an officer who’s hoping to make your mark in the criminal justice field, you need to think about ways to sharpen your writing skills. Career advancement always requires good writing skills!

One tool you should think about is editing software. Some services are free, while others charge a subscription fee. My friend Chuck Warren sent me an article that lists 11 editing tools and describes how they work: Instantly Improve Your Writing with These 11 Editing Tools.”

I recommend reading the article and thinking about using one of these editing tools to look for errors in your written work. These electronic tools can be especially valuable when you’re taking college courses or working on an important report for your agency.

Computer software tools can’t think like humans, of course! For example, most editing tools can’t spot a word that’s spelled correctly but used incorrectly (your/you’re, its/it’s). And sometimes they’re not as smart as we are! The grammar checker on my computer sometimes nags me to fix a sentence that I know is perfectly ok.

Still – spellcheckers, grammar checkers, and other editing tools are a great boon to writers. (The tools on my home computer have saved me from many embarrassing errors!)

Here are some tips:

  • If your work-issued laptop doesn’t have a spellchecker or a grammar checker, consider writing your reports on a PC first. Run your finished piece through the spelling and grammar checks, and then copy it onto your laptop.
  • Consider using a free editing tool – or subscribing to one.
  • Don’t assume that everything the computer says is right. When in doubt, ask a friend for a second opinion.


The Run-On Sentence Problem

A run-on sentence is a serious writing problem that every officer wants to avoid. So…how do you know you’ve written a run-on, and how can you fix one that finds its way into a report you’ve written?

First, a definition. A run-on is a sentence that needs a period. Here’s an example:

I knocked on the door Sam Clinton opened it.  RUN-ON

It’s still a mistake if you try to fix it with a comma:

I knocked on the door, Sam Clinton opened it.  RUN-ON

You can always fix a run-on sentence with a period. Here’s the corrected sentence:

I knocked on the door. Sam Clinton opened it. CORRECT

*  *  *  *  * 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that every long sentence is a run-on. That’s not true. For example, although the sentence you’re reading right now is too long, in my opinion, there’s no place where it needs a period, so in grammatical terms it’s not a run-on.

How can you avoid writing a run-on sentence? I think you can answer that question yourself: Use a period when you come to the end of a sentence. Don’t take a breath and keep going!

Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson I took Mr. Wilson into the dining room.  INCORRECT

Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson. I took Mr. Wilson into the dining room. CORRECT

Here’s another don’t-be-fooled tip: Don’t put a comma at the end of a sentence. Use a comma at the end of an extra idea. Use a period at the end of a sentence.

While Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson, EXTRA IDEA

While Charlene talked quietly to Mrs. Wilson,  I took Mr. Wilson into the dining room. CORRECT

(Comma Rule 1 can be a huge help with this issue. Click here to learn more.)

Everything you say or write is either an extra idea (with a comma) or a sentence (with a period). Practice hearing the difference, and you’ll see a huge improvement in your sentences. That’s a guarantee!


Prepositional Phrases

Many criminal justice writers are wary when they hear the term “prepositional phrase.” It’s got to be hard, right? After all, “prepositional” is a five-syllable mouthful of a word.

Well, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first: Many writers make mistakes when they write a sentence containing a prepositional phrase.

The good news? There’s an easy rule that will keep you out of trouble. And here’s even better news: there’s also an easier rule that works maybe 99.5% of the time.

Let’s get started.

Prepositions are small, everyday words that indicate direction or purpose. The English language has dozens of them. For now, let’s stick to six: in by for with to of. These are the most common prepositions, and you don’t have to memorize any others. (Surely you can memorize six little words, right? in by for with to of)

Prepositions are rarely used by themselves. You wouldn’t say “I went skiing with.” Expressions like “with Mary,” “to the store,” “for a wedding gift, “by myself” and so on are prepositional phrases.

There are a couple of general rules of thumb for writing a sentence with a prepositional phrase that work really well. Take your pick! Either one will help you get your sentences right.

  • When you’re doing the grammar of a sentence, skip the prepositional phrase.
  • Go to the beginning of the sentence.

Maybe once or twice a year you’ll come across a sentence that works differently. That means most of the time you can use one of these rules, and you’ll be fine. (If you’re curious about the exception, click here and read Rule 6.)

Let’s try a couple of examples.

The bookcase with the glass doors (need, needs) to be emptied and moved.

What will you be emptying and moving? The glass doors or the bookcase?

The obvious answer is the bookcase! (You can either go to the beginning of the sentence (bookcase) or cross out “with the glass doors.”)

So here’s your sentence:

The bookcase with the glass shelves needs to be emptied and moved. CORRECT

Another one:

Misunderstanding of department policies (have, has) caused many problems recently.

What caused the problems – department policies or misunderstanding?

The obvious answer is misunderstanding! Again, you can either go to the beginning of the sentence (misunderstanding) or cross out the prepositional phrase “of departmental policies.”

So here’s your sentence:

Misunderstanding of department policies has caused many problems recently. CORRECT

To learn more about writing a sentence with a prepositional phrase, click here and read Rule 4.

 *  *  *  *  *

One more thought: There’s a reason why writers often have difficulty with prepositional phrases. Most people aren’t used to thinking about parts of sentences. It’s not a normal activity. (When was the last time you found yourself thinking, “Hey! That was a prepositional phrase!’?)

You’re learning a new skill. Be patient with yourself, and keep reviewing and practicing. After a while it will become second nature. That’s a promise!

Dictionary definition of a preposition



More Police Jargon to Avoid in Reports

Here are more examples of outdated police jargon and confusing expressions you should avoid in your reports. (Click here to see the previous list.)


This old-fashioned, time-wasting word needs to be stored permanently in the attic. Use “this” or, better yet, repeat the name or information.

The abovementioned suspect is now in custody. WRONG

Langford is now in custody. CORRECT


Advise refers to giving advice. If you use it that way, advise is a fine word. But don’t use it as a synonym for “tell.”

I advised her to seek medical attention for the cut on her arm. CORRECT

I advised her that I would be returning the next day.  WRONG

I told her that I would be returning the next day. CORRECT


Affect is a useful verb meaning “to change.” [Much less commonly it’s also a noun that means emotion.] So why should you avoid affect? Two reasons.

First is the risk of confusing affect and effect. Why take a chance? If you mean change, that’s the word you should write.

I couldn’t affect his decision, so I stopped arguing.  RISKY

I couldn’t change his decision, so I stopped arguing. SAFER

A more serious problem with affect is that it’s vague. It’s better to choose a word that indicates whether the change was for the better or the worse.

The new schedule affected morale.  VAGUE

The new schedule improved morale. BETTER

Rainy days always affect my mood.  VAGUE

Rainy days always make me feel gloomy. BETTER

being that

Never use this clumsy expression. Use because instead.

[Incidentally, being is a perfectly good word that can, however, gum up a sentence. Use it with care.]

I smelled alcohol on his breath

A defense attorney can get you on this one. Alcohol is odorless and tasteless. Say that you smelled “alcoholic beverage” on his breath.


Vague. Use home, condominium, apartment, mobile home.

blue in color

Professional writers avoid wasting time with empty words. “In color” doesn’t add anything, so don’t use it.

The suspect was wearing a shirt that was blue in color.  EMPTY WORDS

The suspect was wearing a blue shirt.  BETTER

the month of September

Same problem. When is September not a month?

They were married in the month of September.  EMPTY WORDS

They were married in September. BETTER