The Spooks' Style Guide: FOIA'd!

NSAstyle.jpg

The National Security Agency generates lots of reports. Though we do not get to read these communiques, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request we know the standards its authors are expected to maintain. 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.

NSA SIGINT Style Manual 2010

Download the NSA Style Guide

PDF (Tidied)
PDF (As released)
TXT (Beta)

The FOIA request was filed on April 30, 2010 by Government Attic, and it took the NSA almost a year to release it.

Posted above is a version of the guide that we've cleaned up for readability's sake. The version released by the NSA was clearly printed out from a website: pages often have crude graphical headers, denuded hyperlinks and other web-cruft. There are numerous redactions throughout, including--on every page--the URL from which the document was saved or printed before release.

Please note that the text version was simply OCR'd from the cleaned-up PDF: there are many formatting errors and typos.

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  1. Haven’t even read it yet. I just wanted to be the first to bask in the the glory of the phrase: “Strunk & White for Spooks”.

    Thanks Rob. :)

    Now I’m going to bone up on my spy grammar skillz, and get smart.

  2. Once upon a time I had a secret clearance and I had a “need to know”. I was less than 5 pages into this secret document when it struck me that it was all full of buzz words to polish up the shine on a project that frankly was a mess. I never made that mistake again. After that I only looked at the company confidential documents. They actually contained useful information.
    I would take a guess that the NSA output is loaded with dark matter but no hard facts to modulate their sinusoidal wavering assessment with. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  3. What!! They’re allowing anticipate to be used in the sense of “looking forward to”! Barbarians.

  4. I guess we can’t blame ‘an historic’ on the spooks anymore. I’d still like to know who’se responsible for that boondoggle.

    1. That would be us — I mean, the British. It’s still technically correct here.

      Although the majority of us think it sounds silly, too — probably because we’ve been listening to you yanks for so long. ;)

    2. If you speak one of the British accents/dialects that drops the “h”s, say “an historic.” If you’re one of the other couple hundred million English speakers, it’s “a historic.” If you host a weekday night fake news show on Comedy Central, you say “an historic,” pronounce the “h” very clearly and sound ridiculous.

      Simple really.

  5. When interrogating a suspect, avoid the common interrogative “Who did you give the secrets to?” Instead, use the more grammatically correct “To whom did you give the secrets?”

    1. I’ll stop using ‘an historic’ the day that someone draws out leviathan with an hook.

        1. Anon in reply to Antinous / Moderator
          And how is “a united stand” using a before a consonant sound??
          Grrr.

          “United” — pronounced “yoo-nigh-ted” — starts with a vowel letter, but it starts with a consonant sound: the sound of “Y” in consonant mode. So you use “a” as in “a united front.”

          It’s parallel to the case in which “honorable” — pronounced “ah-ner-uh-bull” — starts with a consonant letter, but with a vowel sound, and therefore you use “an” as in “an honorable man.”

          — Stevo Darkly

  6. This greatly reassures me. I find sentences ending in prepositions to be pure torture. And confusing affect with effect, why it’s treasonous!

    1. This greatly reassures me. I find sentences ending in prepositions to be pure torture.

      Really? I think you need to boldly go where others have been going to. Free your discourse! From, that is, the really rather random imposition of the rules of Latin grammar onto syntactical arrangements of the English word-hoard.

      http://www.yourdictionary.com/library/ling009.html

      1. Really? I think you need to boldly go where others have been going to. Free your discourse! From, that is, the really rather random imposition of the rules of Latin grammar onto syntactical arrangements of the English word-hoard.

        Reminds me of this old Asimov story:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galley_Slave

  7. Although the majority of us think it sounds silly, too — probably because we’ve been listening to you yanks for so long. ;)

    Hmmm…I think ‘an historic’ sounds slightly better than ‘a historic’, but it’s almost a toss-up…

    Aw, crap, I can’t decide. Now I won’t be able to think about anything else.

  8. “Had enough? What’s the target? Tell me! We can do this all night long.”

    “No. No! Gurgle. Cough. Cough.”

    “Mike, get another bucket for the heavy drinker here.”

    “I’ll never talk, infidel!”

    “I can see you’re not our ordinary guest. Mike, cancel the bucket. Our friend requires more nuanced attention. You brought this on yourself. Remember, I tried to help you. Mike, get the…dangling participles.”

    “Noooooooooooooo!!! Anything but that! I’ll talk, I tell you anything you want to know. In the name of Allah, just don’t mangle the English language!”

        1. Not sure, but it reminds me of The Comfy Chair–

          Haha! Monty Python. I was probably latently channeling and old memory of that.

      1. Hilarious!!! What’s that a parody of?

        I was just trying to get my mind off ‘an historic’…dammit!

        Mike’s just someone I know with a lot of, uh…character.

  9. Just quickly glancing at the document I stumbled across an example of the proper usage of the word ACT:
    “John Hinkley committed an act of murder by the action of shooting singer John Lennon.”
    Surely?

  10. This has to be for giggles.

    “amid …

    (U) If you are referring to a location separating specific objects, use between: between the skyscrapers.”

  11. deprecate, depreciate …
    (U) Deprecate originally meant ‘protest against.” Today deprecate is used in the sense of “belittle” or “mildly disparage.”
    (U) Depreciate originally meant “reduce in value.” Depreciate is used only as a financial term.
    ====
    The programmer in me is sad about this.

  12. demol ish, dest roy …
    (U) Both mean “do away with something.” Purists say completely demolished and totally destroyed are redundant because
    demolished and destroyed are absolutes. This is inconsistent because even purists accept partially destroyed and partially
    demolished. Go ahead and use the modifiers without fear.
    =====
    The implication is that: if you misuse grammar, you should fear the NSA.

  13. “According to purists, a few adjectives have no comparative or superlative modifiers. These include eternal, fatal, incessant, maximum, minimum, optimum, complete, perfect, and unique.”

    “Maximum” is itself a superlative. A good grasp of grammar would suggest that it cannot have a superlative.

    “Use an acronym or abbreviation when it is better known than the expansion: laser, radar, sonar, USSR, …”

    “USSR” is not an acronym.

    1. The Soviet Union (Russian: Советский Союз)
      officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)
      Russian: Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик, (СССР)

  14. Ah yes, back during the Cold War (was it really 25 years ago? More, you say?), being stuck between the USA and the USSR led to some conflicts in our Canadian TV reception from time to time…

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