11 Grammar Lessons From a Leaked CIA Style Book
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
broad outlines of the case
hit the campaign trail
keep their options open
net effect of the decision
refurbish his tarnished image
geared up for action
triggered new developments
generates further disagreement
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 ...):
as has been mentioned previously
build a new house
close personal friend
piecemeal on a piece basis
consensus of opinion
exports beyond their borders
eyewitness at the scene
in close proximity
live studio audience
separate isolation cells
top business magnate
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 originally ran in 2014 and has been updated for 2021.