11 Grammar Lessons From a Leaked CIA Style Book

Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, 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 fascinating, and very well-written, style book for the CIA—a.k.a. Strunk & White for spies.

Within the manual's 181 pages (not including the index) is a terrific guide for normal folks, and not just government sleuths. It offers plenty of unique advice, and the kind of language examples you won't find in your well-worn copy of the Oxford American Dictionary.

1. There is no excuse for bad grammar, no matter how powerful your position.

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 U.S. 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. Writing like a pirate is a definite “don’t.”

"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 everyone knows 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. Skip the fake analyses.

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 spot-on, even if it’s not a long one.

Apprise, citizenry, contradistinction, effectuate, enunciate, eventuate, evince, and opine are just some of them.

8. Their list of "hackneyed phrases" 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
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 with 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."

This story has been updated.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. Poindexter

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. Eye Candy

This phrase meaning a thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. Ribbit

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. Sorry About That

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. Cromulent

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. Five-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. Gomer

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. Cowabunga

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. Har De Har

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. Spam

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast-forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.