Even the National Security Agency has a style manual

I’ve previously blogged about a number of different style manuals, but this is a rather unusual one. BoingBoing has published online the style manual of the National Security Agency, received through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in April 2010.

The NSA has a style guide—a Strunk and White for spooks—which we’re delighted to publish here for the first time.

Most of the document is an alphabetized compendium of ambiguous, easily-misused or otherwise troublesome words. As style guides go, it’s standard fare: more interesting than the grammar tips are clarifications on obscure intelligence terms and the usage examples, which often lean toward military operations, geopolitics, killings and diplomacy.

Go to the BoingBoing post to read the embedded document or download it as a PDF or TXT file.

Below I’ve copied an assortment of entries that caught my eye as I browsed:

about, approximately …
About is preferred in general and informal contexts. Approximately is common in technical and reference works. Do not use either term (or estimated or nearly) if precise figures are given. POOR: During the attack, about 304 were killed. GOOD: During the attack, 304 were killed. If you are not sure of the number, round it off: During the attack, about 300 were killed.

aircraft …
Do not abbreviate the generic types of aircraft in serialized reports. Use fighter, not “fir”; bomber, not “bmbr”. In keeping with modern journalistic style, capitalize only the first letter of aircraft nicknames: F-15 (Eagle).

bomb …
Do not use the terms A-bomb or H-bomb. Spell out the words. Do not capitalize atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, etc.

bureaucratese …
Bureaucratese is a pejorative, non-technical term for the language style commonly associated with bureaucrats.

Avoid bureaucratic style whenever possible. It is the mark of the timid writer. What is bureaucratic style? Robert Claiborne identified the four main principles of bureaucratic style as:
• never use a short word where a long one will do;
• never use one word where you can use three;
• use abstract and general terms rather than concrete and specific ones; and
• avoid flat statements by hedging and qualifying.

Bureaucratese speaks in passive voice and buzzwords, and it carefully avoids assigning responsibility for any action or decision. It will bore or put to sleep most readers. Don’t use it unless you have no other way to communicate.

casualties …
In military terms, casualties means the total number of dead, wounded, missing, and captured. Do not use casualties when referring to only one of these categories.

communism, communist. ..
Use lowercase for the word communism.

Capitalize communist when referring to the political party or to individuals who are members of it: Communist Party. He is a Communist.

Use lowercase for communist in all other situations: a communist government; he has communist leanings.

Shortened term for electronic mail. The spelling without the hyphen is becoming more common and is preferred, but the alternative form e-mail is also correct.

foreign phrases and words …
Keep the use of foreign words and phrases to a minimum. Few of our readers are linguists.

Where the capability exists…, italicize any foreign word or phrase that may not be known to the average reader. Commonly recognized terms that need not be italicized include, but are not limited to:
• ad hoc
• attache
• blitzkrieg
• bona fide
• charge d’affaires
• communique
• coup d’etat
• de facto
• demarche
• detente
• fait accompli
• junta
• laissez faire
• per se
• persona non grata
• rapprochement
• versus
• vis-a-vis

Phonetic spelling of the letter “f.”

gender …
When talking about a specific person, use a term appropriate to that person: chairman Jones, chairwoman Doe.

Use neutral terms when talking about mixed groups or persons whose identity has not been established: members of the Assembly, rather than Assemblymen; a member of Congress rather than a Congressman.

Do not change an official title to a neutral term. If the official title is “Party Chairman,” use that term; don’t say “Party Chairperson.”

For pronouns, the problem is different. Modern English does not have gender-neutral pronouns for people.

When a pronoun must be used and the gender of its antecedent is not known or can refer to persons of either sex, there are four three choices the writer can make, all of which are acceptable in SIGINT serialized reports.

1. Use the plural pronoun: Everyone hopes they will win the contest.
2. Place the whole sentence in the plural: All people hope they will win the contest.
3. Rewrite the sentence and eliminate the personal pronoun: Everyone hopes to win the contest.

Government, as a political term, refers to an established system of political administration. In American usage, it takes a singular verb; in British usage, it takes a plural verb.

guerrilla …
Preferred spelling. The alternate spelling is guerilla.

jihad …
Preferred transliteration of the Arabic word for “holy war.”

missile …
A missile is an unmanned, self-propelled weapon whose flight path or trajectory can be controlled. A missile may be aerodynamic or ballistic. Distinguish it from a “rocket, which is a self-propelled vehicle whose trajectory or flight path cannot be controlled.

Two n’s and s’s. Avoid abbreviating it as “Recon” except as part of a unit designator in a listing or in a narrative report where it occurs repeatedly. Also avoid the abbreviation “recce,” which is chiefly British. The verb form of reconnaissance is reconnoiter.

revolt, revolution …
A revolt is widespread opposition to current standards. Politically, it refers to an armed attempt to change authority.

A revolution is a radical alteration in a system or in social conditions. In the political sense, it is the overthrow by open and organized armed force of an established government and its replacement by another.

security control markings …
Words or phrases added to restrict the dissemination of a serialized report. At this time there are five such markings:
• ORCON – Dissemination and Extraction of Information Controlled by Originator
• NOFORN – Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals
• PROPIN- Proprietary Information Involved
• REL – Releasable to (name of the countries)
• EYES ONLY – (used only on electrical reports in place of REL due to existing software limitations)

title after a name …
Capitalize only national-level titles (Cabinet-level or above) that appear after a name: Jane Doe, Minister of Defense. Lowercase and set off with commas most other titles that appear after a name: John Doe, the deputy assistant minister of culture, arrived yesterday.

title before a name …
Capitalize a formal title appearing before a name: President Jane Doe, Assistant Secretary John Jones. Do not capitalize a title that serves primarily as an occupational designator: astronaut John Doe…. See the entries for courtesy tjtles, military rank, and religious titles.

totalitarian …
Avoid. See the entry for authoritarian.

The document also contains an appendix on abbreviations and acroynyms.

So, what’s your favorite entry?


One response to “Even the National Security Agency has a style manual

  1. I’d always thought that “casualties” referred only to the dead. Interesting.