Sunday, February 5, 2017

I Spy a Spy's Guide

Even though the Style Manual and Writer’s Guide for Intelligence
Publications was de-classified in 2012, I just came across this concise writing manual used by the nation's intelligence agents. The Guide has some great intel for writers, and its general tips include:
  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate
  • Use abbreviations sparingly
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power
  • Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers

Helpful sections detail capitalization and other rules for:
  • Government entities
  • Geographic terms
  • Numbers (mixed-numbers, expressions of value, percentages and time phrases)
  • Latin abbreviations

Most of the Guide’s rules are consistent with those recommended for legal writers. For example, the Guide endorses the use of an apostrophe and an s to indicate possession where a word ends in an s sound (e.g., Texas’s argument).

My favorite part of the Guide, though, is the Word Watchers List of “possibly troublesome words” and how to deal with them. What terms should be under surveillance according to the intelligence community? Words such as:
  • Altogether, all together: Altogether means all told or completely. All together means in unison
  • Assure, ensure, insure: Assure applies to persons (to assure a leader of one’s loyalty). It alone has the sense of setting a person’s mind at rest. Use ensure to mean make certain (to ensure a nation’s security). Insure means to cover with insurance.
  • More than, fewer than, over, under, during, while: Over and under describe location; use more than and fewer than with numbers. For time, use during, from, or while except when the time reference is indefinite or vague. The system has improved during the past year. Inflation is up 10 percent from a year ago. But: Relations between the two nations have improved over time. Living conditions have changed over the centuries.

I love the Word Watchers entry on “verbal overkill” and the suggested substitutes:

Extra words are burdensome to the reader and should be avoided. Here are some samples of  verbal overkill and a simple substitute for each:

    are in a position to (can)           
    it is highly likely that (probably)
    at that point in time (then)                    
    it is possible that (may)
    at the present time (now)                     
    never before in the past (never)
    currently in progress (going on)          
    subsequent to (after)
    due to the fact that (because)              
    the majority of (most)
    in regard to (about)                              
    the manner in which (how)
    in the event that (if)                             
    whether or not (whether)
    in the near future (soon)

The Guide also includes a helpful list for spelling and compound words (antiestablishment but anti-American).

The most pressing question: What does the Guide say about Oxford commas?

Oxford commas are "the rule for CIA publications."

Luckily, the Guide is now available for us non-agents and won’t self-destruct! Uncover it for yourself here.

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