That’s just spooky

I COLLECT style guides the way some people collect parking fines. I’m not talking about the stuff contained in those tawdry gossip rags chronicling who’s wearing what and why.

They leave me cold.

I mean the book-length guidelines newspapers, in particular, use to try to maintain consistency in their reports. Much more than dictionaries, they cover grammar, terminology and even the spelling of the names of newsworthy figures like Libya’s under-siege president. Do you know how many “acceptable” spellings there are of Muammar Gaddafi (that’s the Daily Dispatch style, by the way)?

More than 100 at the last count!

Nestling in my vast repository of rules are such delights as Strunk’s Elements of Style, first published in 1919, the 2011 UK Times newspaper style guide and The Economist’s Pocket Style Book. I even have Internet giant Yahoo!’s newly launched cyber style guide – reckoned to be an online first.

I read them like most people I know read novels.

The other morning, thanks to quirky website Boing Boing, I came across the oddest one of all – and ended up reading a style guide with all the makings of a cracking thriller.

It’s the style manual of America’s National Security Agency. That’s apparently where the US spooks hang out when they’re not off spying.

Naturally, I downloaded it immediately.

All good style guides give easy-to-understand examples of what they’re talking about.  For example, the difference between everyday and every day will be illustrated with a couple of simple sentences:

“Jennifer went to church every day.”

“Saying her prayers was an everyday occurrence.”

The spooks’ style guide does the same – but with a slightly sinister difference.

Under the heading “calendar”, for instance, staff are instructed to use the standard Gregorian calendar for all dates. “If you are quoting a particular date that is significant in another calendar system, however, place the Gregorian date in parentheses immediately after the other calendar date.”

Fair enough – but here’s their scary example: “We will attack on 12 Ramadan (18 March).”

Use adjectives sparingly, the spooks are urged. “Avoid phrases like ‘audible sounds’ and ‘radical terrorists’ that add nothing to the reader’s comprehension.”

And how about this? “Do not use expressions like today, tomorrow, yesterday or next week unless you are giving an exact quote. In that case provide the calendar date in parentheses immediately after:

“Tomorrow (15 April) we will attack from the west.”

The guide was released only after a freedom of information (FOI) request so, not surprisingly, there are tantalisingly blanked out blocks throughout.

“This information is classified because its disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security … it is exempt from disclosure pursuant to the first exemption of the FOIA (5 USC Section 552(b)(1),” is the explanation.

Still, there’s a lot of great stuff in it and the writer’s a surprisingly witty word nerd.

And I’m so relieved all those spies are learning how to express themselves properly! — Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)


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This entry was posted by stevieg on Sunday, July 24th, 2011 at 11:15 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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