Grammar Moses: Don't display that silver-colored weapon at me!

Updated 4/13/2019 5:36 PM

I wrote last week about a police brief that was written awkwardly, in part, because we failed to translate the cop jargon in the police report.

"The thing that jumped out, and that you noted at the end of the segment, was the use of 'deceased,'" wrote Scott Zapel.

"This was either what you suggested: the writer trying to show his or her erudition (and failing miserably); or it was the writer using the terminology of a police report (either repeating what the cop said in the report or mimicking what a cop would say.)"

Scott offered his own example: "After exiting his vehicle, the subject proceeded to enter the structure where he discovered a deceased person."

In other words, someone got out of his car or truck, walked or ran into a building and found a dead body.

I started my career as a cop reporter, and my primary job was to translate police lingo into something more conversational.

I covered upward of 50 police departments then, and it became clear to me right away that police officers are taught to use certain words and sentence structures in writing reports, even if some of those words and phrases obfuscate rather than elucidate.

I remember using this real sentence from a police report to illustrate how that can happen: "Assailant, male black, displayed a silver-colored weapon."

The likely scenario is the guy pointed a chrome handgun at someone. It was a robbery case, if I recall correctly.

But it doesn't take a lot of imagination to view things differently.

Was it really a chrome gun, or could it have been a silver-colored samurai sword, a scimitar or a stiletto? Perhaps a fistful of ball bearings?

And how was the weapon displayed? Was it pointed, waved or perhaps nestled in a bed of crushed red velvet in a mahogany box?

Specificity wins the day and makes for clear writing.

Free gifts!

Have you ever been approached by someone in an airport or in a tourist area who offers you a gift and then -- shock! -- wants cash in return?

Reader Gordon Speake is here to tell you that if it ain't free, it ain't a gift.

"The term 'free gift' is used in so much advertising," he wrote. "Speak of redundancies!"

He's right, of course.

Perhaps we're just a bunch of cynics who don't believe someone would just give you something.

Advertisers try to assure you that the widget they're offering you has no separate price tag by saying their gift also is free.

A gift by definition is free.

Except in the world of commerce, it's probably not.

Unless it's a promotional item, the cost of that "free gift" is covered in the cost of the thing you need to purchase to get the "free gift."

Perhaps our cynicism is justified.

Fat chance!

Why are a fat chance and a slim chance one and the same?

Why is it that something can burn up and burn down at the same time?

I'll leave these questions for you to answer.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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