Agency Style, for Your Eyes Only


Recently, in ways I am not at liberty to divulge, I obtained access to the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. My copy is a hefty PDF, weighing in at around 25 megabytes. I will always be grateful to the brave men and women who got it to me, some at risk of their lives.

A browsable HTML version is said to exist. That would be much easier to consult than an image scan of the hard copy. If you know where there is such a version on the web, let me know. Put the information on a thumb drive and tape it behind the coffee machine in the lounge off the lobby of the Chronicle building, at 1255 Twenty-Third Street, N.W. (or send an email to my Gmail address if you really think that’s secure enough).

Fortunately, your knowing about this document will probably not mean that you have to be killed. The eighth edition was quietly approved for release to the public by the Directorate of Intelligence in 2011. Strictly, there are no longer any classified secrets of style. So let me discuss a little of the content with you.

Our intelligence agencies agree with my advice on the Oxford comma: “Most authorities on English usage” recommend it, they say, and “it is the rule for CIA publications.” Most encouraging.

I was particularly interested in Chapter 9: “Word Watchers List,” a rogues gallery of troublesome words and constructions.

Before I go on, though, I wonder if you have noticed three remarkable things already. First, the book’s title: No apostrophe on Writers ! Did you spot that? Second, no apostrophe on Watchers  in “Word Watchers List,” either. And third (I was toying with you) I deliberately followed suit two paragraphs back when I wrote “rogues gallery” (if the CIA can risk flouting international apostrophe conventions, so can I).

You may recall that in “Being an Apostrophe,” I reported that “I always use the apostrophe in the standard way, even when texting; I’m a conservative.” Not one of those long-haired pinko radical grammarians, the Happiness Boys. But I also said that “I wouldn’t shed a tear for it,” because “the level of harmful confusion attendant on dropping all apostrophes from written English would be zero.” Our intelligence agencies seem to take a similar view, and don’t bother to include apostrophes on modifier nouns. That way they don’t have to decide whether it should have been Writer’s Guide  or Writers’ Guide. They just finesse the question. Very sensible.

On adverbs, they stipulate that “When modifying a verb, adverbs usually go between the auxiliary (or auxiliaries) and the main verb. (The Prime Minister has finally announced her decision.)” Exactly so. The strange myth (common among lawyers) that an adverb must never separate an auxiliary from a following verb is probably what led to the Obama oath-flub incident on January 20 eight years ago.

Naturally I checked to see whether the CIA bans the passive voice. Given how often agency business require reference to events without revealing the identity of the participants, it seemed unlikely. The entry for “passive voice” turned out to be inscrutable: “See active voice.” So I looked up active voice and read this:

active voice     In formal writing, prefer the active voice. Lifeguards clear beaches when forecasters predict storms. Only if your focus is beach clearing rather than lifeguards would the passive be preferred. The beaches are cleared when storms are forecast.

So the familiar bias against the passive is there. Nonetheless, this is sensible advice. The passive example actually is the passive counterpart of the active one (I have seen 20 or 30 cases of clueless grammar nitpickers alleging use of the passive in instances where there was no passive in sight, as reported in this 2014 paper). And one thing that’s true about the contrast between the two examples is that it’s the active one that would be appropriate if you were writing about what lifeguards do, and the passive one if the topic were beach-clearing practices (especially if it is immaterial who drives the SUV onto the beach and shoos the people off). This guide actually talks sense.

So the preliminary judgment that I will share with you is that should you ever find yourself in any position where the CIA and other intelligence agencies are offering you advice, you would be well advised to take it seriously. These guys appear to know what they’re doing. I hope you’ll pass that on to anyone you know who is about to assume an executive role in our government.

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