11 Grammar Lessons From the Leaked CIA Style Book

filed under: 11, grammar, Lists
Image credit: 
Getty Images

Recently, a leaked copy of the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual & Writer's Guide for Intelligence Publications found its way to the Internet. That long title belies what it actually is: A well-written style book for the CIA — the Strunk & White for Spies.

Inside the 181 pages (not including the index) is a terrific guide for normal folks, and not just government sleuths. It still offers some unique advice, however, and you won't find some of these examples in your copy of the Oxford American Dictionary.

1. No One Is Excused From Bad Grammar

The CIA will call you out on your shaky grammar, even if you are a Founding Father. In the section covering absolutes, the style book correctly states, "The Preamble to the US Constitution is out of bounds grammatically when it speaks of a more perfect Union, and, as the common saying puts it, a woman cannot be somewhat pregnant."

2. You Aren't Allowed to Write Like a Pirate

"Arr, she's a fine vessel, ain't she?" would be frowned upon for many reasons, not least the gendered pronoun. "Boats, nautically speaking, are usually small craft that can be carried on a ship, a larger vessel suitable for crossing the high seas. The exception is a submarine, which is most often referred to as a boat. All take the pronoun it, not she."

3. Watergate Changed Everything, Including American Grammar

Of course the CIA is able to pinpoint who is to blame for American usage going awry: Celebrity newscasters.

"Celebrity copycatting can lead one up the garden path because those emulated are not always pure of speech. A venerable newscaster persists in mispronouncing February (without the first r sound) and has misled a whole generation. Another Pied Piper of TV is given to saying “one of those who is" — joining many others who are deceived by the one and forget that the plural who is the subject of the verb. The classic copycat phrase, at this point in time, grew out of the Watergate hearings and now is so firmly entrenched that we may never again get people to say at this time, at present, or simply now."

4. The CIA Employs Poetic Realists

Just check out this fantastic entry for the word "die":

"Die is something we all do, even writers who relegate world leaders to a sort of Immortality Club with phrasing like the President has taken steps to ensure a peaceful transition if he should die. Reality can be recognized by inserting in office or before the end of his term, or even by saying simply when he dies."

5. "Evidence" is a Crap Word and You Know It

"Evidence is not a synonym for Information or reporting. For the most part, avoid the word and get on with the analysis. Such phrases as available evidence indicates are essentially meaningless."

6. Avoid Fake Analysis

In their words, "Phrases like the following betray sloppy thinking and detract from any
serious presentation":

anything can happen
it is not possible to predict
further developments are to be expected
it is too early to tell
it remains to be seen
only the future will tell

7. Their list of "pretentious words" is good, but not extensive

Apprise, citizenry, contradistinction, effectuate, enunciate, eventuate, evince, and opine.

8. The List of "Hackneyed Phrases," however, is perfect

If you're a fussy grammarian and have worked for the government your entire life, it's probably not hard to fill a couple notebooks with these asinine phrases:

a likely scenario
assume the mantle of office
bottom line
broad outlines of the case
heightened tensions
hit the campaign trail
keep their options open
net effect of the decision
considered judgment
nonstarters
dire straits
potential chokepoint
far-reaching implications
refurbish his tarnished image
geared up for action
triggered new developments
generates further disagreement
viable alternatives
hammer out a compromise
widely held perception

9. This Wonderful List of Redundancy is a Wonderful List as Well

According to the style book, redundant phrases "expose bad habits or, worse, carelessness. The author who writes It is a true fact that they are offering free gifts is not watching his words."

Their "redundancy police" compiled the following list (funny, there's no mention of the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual & Writer's Guide for Intelligence Publications...):

accidentally misfired
military troops
adequate enough
mutual cooperation
advance reservation
naval marines
as has been mentioned previously
old adage
both agree
own personal
build a new house
past career
bureaucratic redtape
past history
chief mainstay
personal autograph
church seminarians
personal charisma
close confidant
past custom
close personal friend
personal popularity
combine together
piecemeal on a piece basis
completely surrounded
professional career
consensus of opinion
rally together
could possibly
relocate elsewhere
current status
established tradition
exact same
exile abroad
exports beyond their borders
eyewitness at the scene
first began
final vestiges
foreign imports
free gift
future potential
future prospects
future successor
historical monuments
historical past
holy shrine
in close proximity
interact together
joint coalition
little booklet
live studio audience
long litany
major crisis
major milestone
meet personally
separate isolation cells
separate out
share together
single greatest
single most
small cottage
small village
sound logic
still continues
still remains
still retains
sufficient enough
sum total
tandem couple
temporary respite
temporary suspension
thin veneer
top business magnate
true facts
trusted confidant
underlying premise
unexpected surprise
unite together
well-known reputation
young baby

10. Don't Confuse "Nonconventional" and "Unconventional"

And you never will, thanks to what is perhaps the greatest example sentence juxtaposition of all time:

"Nonconventional refers to high-tech weaponry short of nuclear explosives. Fuel-air bombs are effective nonconventional weapons. Unconventional means not bound by convention. Shirley Chisholm was an unconventional woman."

11. Resist Subjective Triumphalism

"Free World is at best an imprecise designation. Use only in quoted matter."

More from mental_floss...

July 10, 2014 - 11:11pm
submit to reddit