Careful Words, Commas, and CIA StyleLeave a comment
September 11, 2014 by libroshombre
Buddha once said, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” He was seconded by Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window,” in which hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe encountered a “long-limbed, languorous type of showgirl blond.” “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class,” Marlowe thought, but that was dispelled when she opened her mouth and said “don’t” instead of “doesn’t” improperly along with other grammatical misstatements. “Where’s your refinement?” Marlow wondered.
Decent grammar’s important everywhere, because everyone’s constantly judged by those they attempt to communicate with. Perusing my copy of “The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World,” for example, I learned that “speaking of a language incorrectly and brokenly” in Turkey is called “catra patra,” and similar disapprobation exists in all languages.
Even tiny grammatical flaws can mushroom into serious ramifications. Take the false period in the original Declaration of Independence. Last summer the NY times reported that a researcher is questioning “a period that appears right after the phrase ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ but almost certainly not … on the badly faded parchment original.” That continues “instituted among men, deriving their power from the consent of the governed.” The period isn’t in Jefferson’s original rough draft or the broadside Congress had printed. Without it “the importance of government as a tool” in protecting individual rights is emphasized.
Other small grammatical slips can loom large, like a missing comma turning “Let’s eat, grandma!” into the disturbing “Let’s eat grandma!” And during the funeral ceremonies for Nelson Mandela last December the Washington Times reported on a Britain’s Sky News headline that read, “World leaders at Mand3la tribute, Obama-Castro handshake andsame-sex marriage date set.” “The prospect of a wedding between the two world leaders got the Twitterverse tweeting. ‘This is why the Oxford comma exists!’ said Carole Blake, a literary agent in London. The Oxford comma is that extra punctuation mark before the word ‘and’ that the British use and Americans usually don’t.”
Count me among the Oxford, or “serial,” comma’s many American proponents. Other American advocates include the U.S. Government Printing Office, the Chicago Manual of Style, the CIA, and the redoubtable “Elements of Style,” by William Strunk, Jr, and E.B. White. “Strunk and White” is the quintessential book on the art of skillful writing. When my well-read and spoken eldest child recently challenged her acquaintancesto come up with a “ten-books-that-changed-your-life” list, you better believe “Strunk and White” was on mine.
My first copy was given to me by my boss at the State Department after he’d read a preliminary draft of my report. The book’s wisdom was revelatory, and quite literally changed my life. A comma’s a small price to avoid ambiguity, so when Strunk and White state “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term,” as in “red, white, and blue,” instead of “red, white and blue,” that’s enough for me.
Strunk and White’s staunch recommendations pale next to the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Style Manual& Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications.” “The CIA’s ruthless style manual,” as the American Press Institute terms it, was made public last July through a Freedom of Information Act request from the legal nonprofit National Security Counselors and the API was quick to note that the document cites its heavy reliance on “Elements of Style.” The API added that “the CIA is a prescriptivist scold, a believer in the serial comma, and a champion of ‘crisp and pungent’ language ‘devoid of jargon.’”
Being such a Strunk and White fanboy, many CIA style recommendations seem OK, like “omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be,” and
“Keep sentences and paragraphs short, and vary the structure of both.” However, a darker side’s present as well. Special distinction’s made between similar but confusing terms, like “disinformation” (“deliberate planting of false reports”) and “misinformation” (“equates in meaning but does not carry the same devious connotation”), and “tortuous” (“twisting, devious, highly complex”) and “torturous” (“causing torture, cruelly painful”).
As Mark Twain pointed out, “A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.”