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A Word, Please: LAPD tweet about explosion buried the lede, prevaricated with a ‘the’

Aerial image shows remains of an armored LAPD tractor-trailer after fireworks exploded June 30.
An aerial image shows the remains of an armored Los Angeles Police Department tractor-trailer after fireworks exploded June 30.
(KTLA)

“Our Bomb Squad officers were in the process of seizing over 5,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in the area of 27th Street and San Pedro. Some of the fireworks were being stored in our Bomb Squad trailer as a precautionary measure. Unknown at this time what caused an explosion.”

That was the only tweet from the Los Angeles Police Department’s @LAPDHQ account reporting a June 30 explosion in a residential neighborhood that happened after officers had taken steps to prevent an explosion.

The weaselly language of the LAPD’s announcement didn’t go over well in the Twitterverse.

“How is ‘explosion’ the last word in this tweet and not the first word in this tweet?” asked @Darth, an anonymous and wildly popular Twitter user best known for posting pictures of adorable dogs. “This is like one of those ‘a gun went off’ explanations that tries to obsfucate (sic) that someone actually pulled the [expletive deleted] trigger.”

Darth has a point. To someone who values transparency and accountability, the LAPD’s announcement is maddening. But to a language geek, it’s also kind of exciting. The tweet illustrates just how powerful syntax can be to shape your message, for good or for ill.

Nominalizations are grammatical, and a lot of adjectives and verbs have noun forms, but using nominalizations can occasionally lead to terrible writing.

For example, here’s how the headline writers at the Los Angeles Times reported the news: “Terror, panic as explosion rocks L.A. block.”

Notice the operative subject and verb here: “explosion rocks.” There’s real action taking place in this clause — not just a watered-down reference to an action.

“Explosion” is a nominalization, which I discussed in this space recently. Usually, a nominalization means a verb in its noun form — a dynamic action turned into a static object or abstract concept. For example, “The truck exploded” is a much more action-oriented wording than the nominalized alternative: “The truck experienced an explosion.”

But that’s not the only way the LAPD’s social media team downplayed officers’ potential responsibility for the blast that injured 17 people and shattered windows in homes, cars and a laundromat. Just by putting “explosion” at the end of the statement, the department deftly buried the lede. You have to slog through 52 boring words like “in process” and “as a precautionary measure” to get to the kaboom.

But there’s another thing happening here that I find particularly irksome — a thing that comes up a lot in my work editing writers who aren’t great at explaining things: making reference to a thing, in this case, an explosion, without first telling the reader the thing exists.

In most cases, these writers’ weapon of choice is the definite article “the.”

Consider the sentence “Katie screamed and grabbed the diary.” It’s perfectly grammatical. Nothing wrong with that at all — unless you’ve failed to mention at some point that there exists a diary.

Here’s how I put it in my book “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences”: “Ever stop to think about the word ‘the’? It’s a tiny word, yet it’s huge. It carries so much responsibility. It leans so heavily on your reader. It says, ‘You’re expected to know what I’m talking about.’”

The LAPD tweet doesn’t use the definite article. It uses an indefinite article, “an,” to commit the same crime against the reader. “Unknown at this time what caused an explosion” is a reference to an explosion. It’s not the same as reporting that there has been an explosion. Even wet-blanket wording like “an explosion occurred Wednesday” would have been sufficient to tell the reader what had happened.

Obviously, official police department statements shouldn’t aim to grab the reader the way newspaper headlines do. But this tweet’s buffering of the news went too far. By making reference to “an explosion” instead of stating that there was an explosion, LAPD not only downplayed the blast but also downplayed the fact that the injuries and property damage may have been caused by their own screw-up.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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