The CIA is a prescriptivist scold
July 10, 2014 12:54 AM   Subscribe

Writing tips from the CIA’s ruthless style manual:

Strunk & White, it turns out, were CIA sources. The authors of The Elements of Style, a classic American writing guide, are cited alongside Henry Fowler, Wilson Follett, and Jacques Barzun in the Directorate of Intelligence’s Style Manual & Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications, whose eighth edition (from 2011) was quietly posted online (pdf) by the legal nonprofit National Security Counselors a little over a year ago, following a Freedom of Information Act request.

As revealed in the manual, the CIA is a prescriptivist scold, a believer in the serial comma, and a champion of “crisp and pungent” language “devoid of jargon.” It takes a firm stand against false titles used attributively and urges intelligence writers to lowercase the w in Vietnam war (“undeclared”).
posted by moody cow (30 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'll take writing advice from the founders of The Paris Review, no problem
posted by thelonius at 12:59 AM on July 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


Good. If I wanted précis of my personal information circulated as vers libre I'd shop around for another panopticon. At least it's not Newspeak.
posted by aesop at 2:01 AM on July 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


I feel obligated to drop a link to Geoffrey Pullum on Strunk & White, for anyone who is unfamiliar with his unceasing(ly entertaining) scorn for the manual.

There is more.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:58 AM on July 10, 2014 [11 favorites]


The general advice from the CIA style manual isn't particularly interesting. At least once it's established that the CIA prefers internal communications to be clear and unambiguous. That's what internal documentation for any corporate entity requires.

It's the Fowler's Manual-type usage guide that's more interesting. "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."

It's hard to read that and not wonder whether whomever worked on that entry was happy with where their career has led.
posted by ardgedee at 3:09 AM on July 10, 2014 [11 favorites]


And it would be totally awesome if this thread didn't derail into yet another screaming match over whether Strunk & White is the worst thing to happen to American English. Because geez, you guys.
posted by ardgedee at 3:09 AM on July 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is the most delicious piece of gossip and intrigue I've seen all day! Upon reading the OP a scandalised "NO?!" emerged spontaneously from me. Strunk and White as spooks... who would have thought...
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 3:42 AM on July 10, 2014


Isn't it OK for a style manual to be "prescriptivist"? In this shop, use the Oxford comma, end of story. That kind of thing.
posted by thelonius at 3:59 AM on July 10, 2014 [20 favorites]


Although I'm liking the idea of the non-prescriptivist style manual.

"Here at Anarchism Weekly or Whenever, Really we sometimes use semi-colons, but you don't have to and it doesn't really matter where you put them. Try three in a row. Or not. It's all good."
posted by Segundus at 4:14 AM on July 10, 2014 [46 favorites]


And it would be totally awesome if this thread didn't derail into yet another screaming match over whether Strunk & White is the worst thing to happen to American English.

How about whether American is the worst thing to happen to English?
posted by biffa at 4:29 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Although I'm liking the idea of the non-prescriptivist style manual.

It's not quite the oxymoron it seems. A non-prescriptivist style manual would just describe the norms used in a certain context, and leave it up to you to follow them. (E.g. "singular 'they' is usually avoided, but not universally" rather than "don't use singular 'they'".)

Honestly, when it comes to style manuals the distinction between prescriptivist and descriptivist is kind of meaningless. The distinction that matters is whether the manual's advice is accurate and sensible or not.

To bring it back to the CIA, I too am a fan of "crisp and pungent" language, but I feel like the CIA and I have very different ideas of what that means.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:52 AM on July 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


So the CIA is on the correct side in the serial comma wars? I am so conflicted.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:13 AM on July 10, 2014 [13 favorites]


One of my favorite guides is the CIA's Words of Estimative Probability, on what words to use when talking about chances, likelihoods, and odds:
A few days after the estimate appeared, I was in informal conversation with the Policy Planning Staff's chairman. We spoke of Yugoslavia and the estimate. Suddenly he said, "By the way, what did you people mean by the expression `serious possibility'? What kind of odds did you have in mind?" I told him that my personal estimate was on the dark side, namely, that the odds were around 65 to 35 in favor of an attack. He was somewhat jolted by this; he and his colleagues had read "serious possibility" to mean odds very considerably lower. Understandably troubled by this want of communication, I began asking my own colleagues on the Board of National Estimates what odds they had had in mind when they agreed to that wording. It was another jolt to find that each Board member had had somewhat different odds in mind and the low man was thinking of about 20 to 80, the high of 80 to 20. The rest ranged in between.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:49 AM on July 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


Crisp (as in burned to a) and pungent (followed closely by punji).
posted by pracowity at 5:50 AM on July 10, 2014


The link to the manual appears to be broken. Here is a link to the originating site's "vault."

http://nationalsecuritylaw.org/document_vault.html
posted by mecran01 at 6:28 AM on July 10, 2014


So the CIA is on the correct side in the serial comma wars? I am so conflicted.
I'm relieved. For a second there I was wondering who really came up with "the strippers, JFK and Stalin", and whether they knew something the rest of us don't.
posted by roystgnr at 6:30 AM on July 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


403. Anyone have an alternate link?
posted by elsietheeel at 6:38 AM on July 10, 2014


The distinction that matters is whether the manual's advice is accurate and sensible or not.

I always thought the point of a style manual was to provide conventions to follow to promote consistency, not to give advice.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:38 AM on July 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


When can we start calling it the CIA comma?
posted by Mad_Carew at 6:54 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


When can we start calling it the CIA comma?

Right now.

But, you can't tell anyone.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:55 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's in the wayback machine.
posted by atbash at 7:05 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


In Prescriptivist America, Guide styles you!
posted by Zed at 7:13 AM on July 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


How about whether American is the worst thing to happen to English?

Or the reverse ...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:02 AM on July 10, 2014


I've always thought it was obnoxious that my high school had to pay copyright fees for the MLA guide.
posted by XMLicious at 9:43 AM on July 10, 2014


> One of my favorite guides is the CIA's Words of Estimative Probability, ...

Then you must love RFC 2119, "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels"
1. MUST This word, or the terms "REQUIRED" or "SHALL", mean that the
definition is an absolute requirement of the specification.

Er, I mean you may enjoy it.
5. MAY This word, or the adjective "OPTIONAL", mean that an item is
truly optional. One vendor may choose to include the item because a
particular marketplace requires it or because the vendor feels that
it enhances the product while another vendor may omit the same item.
An implementation which does not include a particular option MUST be
prepared to interoperate with another implementation which does
include the option, though perhaps with reduced functionality. In the
same vein an implementation which does include a particular option
MUST be prepared to interoperate with another implementation which
does not include the option (except, of course, for the feature the
option provides.)
Okay, you how about "You might like it"? Got anything for that, RFC 2119? Nothing? Okay then.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2014


"I always thought the point of a style manual was to provide conventions to follow to promote consistency, not to give advice."

Ideally. It makes perfect sense for there to be a house style in many/most contexts.

The problem is when style manuals and copy editors appeal to a presumed universally-applicable prescriptivist standard, such as Strunk & White, which almost always themselves are bullshit. Or if they just appeal to these supposed universal prescriptivist rules directly.

Strunk & White is terrible for many of the same reasons as so many scolding prescriptivists are terrible: they are built around falsehoods (such as incorrect etymological or historical usage claims), are almost without fail self-contradictory (not just between prescriptions, but the prescriptivist writers almost always violate their own rules in these manuals), and often don't reflect what actual highly-regarded writers write. I would be much, much more tolerant of prescriptivists if they weren't actually so amazingly and frequently wrong in their supporting claims.

So style manuals often enshrine this wider prescriptivist nonsense. It's not so much that they say that, hey, everyone needs to drive on the right-hand side of the road because choosing a side is the only way we'll avoid crashes; it's that they say, hey, everyone needs to drive on the right-hand side of the road because doing it that way is inherently better than everyone driving on the left-hand side.

And while often a style manual doesn't directly appeal to some prescriptivist authority (clearly, the CIA's does), it's also a bit problematic when the consistent style enforced is one that has promulgated through prescriptively-inclined culture (such as journalism or education) with these accompanying faulty claims of universality.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:03 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I will enjoy it, benito.strauss, in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation Drafting Guide
Shall/must/ should/will/may.

(a) Use the terms "shall" and "must" to indicate an obligation to act. In the FAR "shall" and "must" have the same meaning. "Must" is the preferred term to use in FAR text other than provisions and clauses.

(b) Use the term "should" to indicate an expected course of action or policy to be followed unless inappropriate for a particular circumstance.

(c) Use "will" to indicate an anticipated future action or result.

(d) Use "may" to indicate a discretionary action.

posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:04 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, yes ... but their penchant for brevity was superlative.
posted by Twang at 10:11 AM on July 10, 2014


404 - Page Not Found


Shall/must/ should/will/may.

(a) Use the terms "shall" and "must" to indicate an obligation to act. In the FAR "shall" and "must" have the same meaning. "Must" is the preferred term to use in FAR text other than provisions and clauses.

(b) Use the term "should" to indicate an expected course of action or policy to be followed unless inappropriate for a particular circumstance.

(c) Use "will" to indicate an anticipated future action or result.

(d) Use "may" to indicate a discretionary action.


Not traditionalists on the will/shall divide?
posted by BWA at 1:21 PM on July 10, 2014


I thought it was totally reasonable (aside from all those missile abbreviations).
posted by mrgrimm at 3:57 PM on July 10, 2014


Strunk & White is terrible for many of the same reasons as so many scolding prescriptivists are terrible: they are built around falsehoods

check the pdf from the passive voice post for some great examples of people condemning sentences which they incorrectly categorize as passive
posted by thelonius at 6:16 PM on July 10, 2014


« Older Professor Shyguy chiptunes Tightrope   |   "Ugliness, Empathy, and Octavia Butler" Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments