If this is a war of words, all we can say is, Duck!


November 12, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

A WORD OF ADVICE to Carroll County Sheriff John H. Brown and State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes: Next time you send out press releases, check them for spelling and grammatical errors. The last two were riddled with typos, run-on sentences and awkward grammar. Those mistakes weakened your arguments and your messages.

I know that as a writer who commits crimes against the English language on a regular basis, I am asking for trouble when I point out the mistakes of others. But guarding the language is a dirty job, and someone in the community has to step forward to do it. I am volunteering only because I don't want Carroll's top law enforcement officials to have to defend themselves against charges of murdering the English language.

Sheriff Brown's Nov. 2 blast against Mr. Barnes started off badly. He misspelled the word "release" in the heading. His spelling was press "relase."

So maybe Mr. Brown's secretary didn't have time to run the spell-checker before this important announcement was made to the public and press. Somebody in his office should have caught TC that mistake. It is up there in big black letters on the top of his letterhead. If this is the kind of mistake that gets by the sheriff and his deputies, one can only wonder about his office's ability to spot other, less obvious wrongs.

Grammatical misdemeanor

That error, however, is a grammatical misdemeanor compared to the felonious assault on sentence construction committed in two sentences that end the release's first paragraph.

"It may be that so much money is owed the bank on the vehicle, that it is impractical to seek forfeiture. But that fact will be determined in the course of the investigation required by me as the head of the law enforcement agency which seized the vehicle."

As a law enforcement official, Mr. Brown wants to be known for his clear and active campaign against crime. Why then use such a muddled construction to convey his thoughts? He would have been better off using the active voice and saying: It may be impractical to seek forfeiture because the defendant still has a large outstanding balance on his car loan.

The last sentence in that paragraph brought me to a grinding halt. Let's re-examine it: "But that fact will be determined in the course of the investigation required of me as the head of the law enforcement agency which seized the vehicle."

It contains multiple examples of wrongful construction. It is written in the passive voice, a major felony. Forceful writing, the kind law enforcement officials should favor, requires an active voice. "As the head of the law enforcement agency that seized the vehicle, I will determine how much the defendant owes."

That kind of construction puts him in charge. Also "that" replaced "which." Which-hunting bolsters a sentence as much as hunting down criminals helps a community.

In the second paragraph, Mr. Brown has a run-on sentence. In writing, a run-on is similar to a serial killing spree.

"I should add that contrary to what Jerry Barnes told the Baltimore Sun, the lead investigator, Cpl. Gonder called Mr. Barnes at 3:30 a.m. on 10-28-95 about this arrest and advised him of all the facts in this case -- going into detail about the truck being seized, the $876,000 in U..[sic] currency and outlining the charges -- that met with his approval."

There's an example of real butchery. The sentence is too long and contains too many facts. It needs to be broken up. First sentence should relate that Corporal Gonder called Mr. Barnes. Second one should contain the information Cpl. Gonder gave Mr. Barnes. The third should detail Mr. Barnes' reaction.

Sending a message

A simple declarative sentence sends a clear message. That's why police say, "Stop, or I'll shoot." No one running down the street has to parse that sentence to figure out who is doing what to whom.

In the third paragraph, Mr. Brown wrote a clear and decisive sentence: "I do not intend to coddle criminals." It is a forceful expression of his views and will be a mitigating factor at sentencing.

My judgment is that even with mitigation, this release needs a strong dose of rehabilitation and rewriting.

Mr. Barnes' release has its share of typos: "ride" instead of pride and the possessive "sheriffs" lacks the necessary apostrophe.

Like the sheriff, Mr. Barnes loves run-on sentences. "I have been targeting drug dealers for prosecution and conviction for my entire career spanning two decades and I am very proud of two things -- my ability to obtain the longest sentences imposed upon drug dealers in the history of Carroll County and the fact that no narcotics conviction that I have handled has ever been reversed upon appeal." Speaking of longest sentences

Given the contentious relationship between Sheriff Brown and Mr. Barnes, we can expect more press releases.

Let's hope they can redeem themselves.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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