CIA style manual: 'Keep the language crisp and pungent'

Reporters and their CIA sources have something in common besides stories about clandestine operations and hush-hush policy initiatives: strict style guidelines.


An article published on Quartz today deconstructs the "Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual and Writer's Guide for Intelligence Publications," which was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act and posted on the National Security Counselors website. The 185-page document has chapters on capitalization, numbers, punctuation and spelling, along with a section devoted to some fundamental precepts for good writing. Among them:

  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
  • Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short, and vary the structure of both.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Make sure the subject and the verb agree in number; do not be tricked by intervening words.
  • Be just as sure every pronoun has a clearly identifiable antecedent and that the two agree in number and gender.
  • Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers
  • Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policy maker.

Related: | Roy Peter Clark weighs in on the Oxford comma | Clark fights for the passive voice 

The style manual is also replete with usage examples that refer to covert derring-do and sneaky plots, the Quartz article notes:

"number of: a phrase that is too imprecise in some contexts. A number of troops were killed. (If you do not know how many, say an unknown number.)" affect, effect: Affect as a verb means to influence, to produce an effect upon.(The blow on the head affected John's vision.) Effect, as a verb, means to bring about. (The assailant effected a change in John's vision by striking him on the head.) Effect, as a noun, means result. (The effect of the blow on John's head was blurred vision.) disinformation, misinformation: Disinformation refers to the deliberate planting of false reports. Misinformation equates in meaning but does not carry the same devious connotation."

Despite the shared attention to spelling, grammar and usage, the manual differs from the AP stylebook on one polarizing rule: use of the oxford comma. The stylebook is a champion of the hotly contested punctuation mark and distinguished CIA usage from news usage:

"Opinion is divided as to whether to use the serial comma, as the comma after the next to last element in a series is called: many publications, especially newspapers, generally omit it so as to save space but sometimes insert it to avoid ambiguity. The question does not arise if the serial comma is always used."

Many journalists might be surprised to find they agree with CIA officials, but on this matter, it seems, they concur. In an unscientific poll, about 70 percent of respondents agreed with Roy Peter Clark's contention that CIA that the Oxford comma should be used in all cases.

Correction: A previous version of this story included in a blockquote links, in parentheses, to Poynter stories about some of the grammatical issues addressed by the CIA. We've moved the links below it. 

Caption: An employee pushes a dustmop near the CIA seal in the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (Credit: AP Images)

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.


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