Writing in Criminal Justice

Here are some of the common errors that I see in student writing, and some suggestions and links to how to fix them.

APA Style and Plagiarism

Plagiarism is passing off someone else’s writing as your own.   The best way to avoid the problem is to give credit where it is due.  This means using a specific style to format your papers.  Most criminal justice programs use the APA Style.  Use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.

For more information on in the APA Style, visit the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.

Formal v. Informal

Anything called a “paper”  in criminal justice should be written in a formal style.  This means that many things you may have learned in English classes are wrong.  This is something that the grammar checker in MS Word can help you with, but you have to set that as the style you want it to check. When in doubt, write in a formal style.

Using the Passive Voice

Academic writing can be boring, but it doesn’t have to be.  One way to make your writing less boring is to use the active voice.  The style checker in MS Word does a good job of detecting passive construction.  Do not take this idea too far; if your sentence is a wreck because you tried to make it active, then revert to the passive voice.

End of Sentence Prepositions

This rule is a myth that is so common it can sometimes be applied as a rule.  The best advice is to avoid it in formal writing, especially when it will be redundant.

Including Needless Words

As William Struck suggested many years ago in The Elements of Style,  OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS.  This is a difficult for lawyers, but nothing needs to be “null and void” when it can be simply “void.”

First-person pronouns (“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” etc.).

Do not use these in formal writing.

Using You and We

Do not address the reader as “you” or use the royal “we” in formal writing.

Using Contractions

Do not (not Don’t) use contractions in formal writing.  This includes Latin contractions such as etc. and et al. (unless they are included in parenthetical notes and citations).

Colloquialisms and Slang

Do not use these in formal writing.  Informally, cops chase bad guys.  Formally, police officers pursue suspects.

Using Nonstandard Diction

Avoid text message and internet shortcuts for words.  Avoid “ain’t” and anything else a good dictionary calls “nonstandard.”

Using the Wrong Word

Do not let spell checkers and grammar checkers do all of your proofreading for you.  MS Word, for example, will happily let you suffer from “pubic” humiliation rather than the intended public humiliation you intended.

Where / Were
polices / policies

Using Abbreviated Forms of Words

It is television in formal writing, not TV.  It is a cellular telephone, not a phone.  Take photographs at a crime scene, not photos and definitely not pics.

Over and Under Use of Simple Sentences

Too many sentences of the “See Jane run.” variety make your paper short and choppy, and may leave your reader hurt that you don’t think her or she is intelligent.  Avoid going too far the other direction and sounding like Hemingway.  Strike a balance and use a variety of sentence lengths.  Work on your knowledge of properly using commas, semicolons and colons if this seems hard.

Using Pompous Language and Jargon

Formal does not mean pompous or haughty.  Choose the best, most accurate word in any situation, not the longest or most obscure.  Some law enforcement officers tend to do this in reports.  Why go through all the trouble to effect an apprehension when you can make an arrest?

In addition, avoid terminologies that is only known within specific circles, such as corrections officers, police officers, or lawyers.  avoid statements such as “We had to lay hands on him when he wouldn’t catch a rack” and “we ROR’d that 10-51 to clear a cell for a 503.”
While a useful tool, the “synonym” tool in your word processor can get you into trouble.  If you do not know the precise meaning of a word, do not use it.

Subject-Verb Disagreement

A singular verb takes a singular noun.  A plural verb takes a plural subject.  Most of the time the wrong combination will “sound” wrong.  “Dr. McKee are teaching my criminology class.”  Sometimes, however, the wrong way sounds correct.  The term data, for example, sounds incorrect to many when it is correctly paired with a plural verb.  “The data were analyzes.”

 Missing Comma After Introductory Clauses

Introductory clauses require a comma to separate them from the rest of the sentence.

Incorrect:  Prior to the Warren court’s decision the exclusionary rule did not apply to state law enforcement.

Correct:  Prior to the Warren court’s decision, the exclusionary rule did not apply to state law enforcement.


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