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FOIA documents

Here Are the NSA’s Internal Grammar Advice Columns

The intelligence agency’s Grammar Geek explained things like the difference between “affect” and “effect.”

Louise Matsakis

Louise Matsakis

The Gabby the Grammar Geek logo. Image: NSA / Composition: Louise Matsakis

Five years ago, an employee at the US National Security Agency (NSA), wondered about how to spell the word “cancelled.”

“I looked it up in the dictionary on my desk (Yes, I still have one), and it uses one L, but notes that the two L variety is chiefly British. Why does it seem that I am the only one using 1 L, and does it really matter?” they wrote.

The question was addressed to the Grammar Geek, an advice columnist that provided intelligence officers with writing tips. The column was published in SIDtoday, an internal newsletter distributed to a division of the agency called the Signals Intelligence Directorate. The Government Attic, a website that publishes documents released through Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs), published 29 editions of Grammar Geek dating back to 2012 on Monday. It’s not clear whether it obtained every edition in existence (the NSA says some information was withheld).

The columns expose a rarely seen side of the intelligence agency, famous for its mass surveillance and targeted spying programs unearthed by former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. Some of the programs were later found to be illegal.

The first Grammar Geek column obtained by Government Attic was published on April 10, 2012, according to the documents. The original author “Gigi” often addressed fairly basic writing concepts, like what pronoun to use when the gender of a subject is unknown, like with nouns such as police officer, judge, teacher, or worker.

Gabby’s response to that particular question is surprisingly progressive. She notes that before the “Women’s Movement grew” it was customary to defer to the masculine, but that doing so now would be “viewed as sexist.” She recommends using the plural, as in “Police officers wear uniforms.”

Image: NSA

While many of the people who wrote to Gabby didn’t acknowledge they work at one of the world’s most notorious spying agencies, some directly reference the job. One writer featured in a 2012 column described a dispute with their boss about whether to use the article “an” or “a” when referring to NSA/CSS SIGINT representatives. The Central Security Service (CSS) fosters collaboration between cryptologic elements of the Armed Forces and the NSA. SIGINT stands for signals intelligence, or information collected about foreign powers.

Image: NSA

The Grammar Geek used a number of sources to inform her answers. She admitted to Googling some, as well as using Wikipedia. She also used NSANet, a separate, secret internet that allows analysts to access everything contained in the NSA’s vast databases. It has its own bridges, routers, systems, and gateways, according to The Week.

In 2013, just a year after the Grammar Geek launched, the NSA announced that a new editor was stepping in to write the column. “Gigi” was replaced with “Gabby.” Gabby’s real identity is redacted, but in the post where she introduced herself she says she worked at the agency for 30 years before assuming the role. She also mentioned writing for a number of other internal NSA publications, like NSADaily and Tech Trend Notes.

It’s not clear whether another Grammar Geek replaced Gigi after she too retired a year later. If you know the identity of either Gigi or Gabby or have any other information you’d like to share about “the Grammar Geek,” here’s how to contact Motherboard securely.

Image: NSA

Overall, the Grammar Geek provides insight into the culture and concerns of one of the most notoriously secretive security agencies in the world. It's worth noting that the Grammar Geek is not the agency's only advice columnist. From at least 2010 to 2014, it also had Zelda, who answered questions about workplace practices and ethics.

At the very least, the Grammar Geek archives confirm that some NSA analysts were fans of the popular comic Cyanide and Happiness. The Grammar Geek included a grammar-themed edition of the comic in one of her columns:

Image: NSA

You can read all of the Grammar Geek columns obtained by the Government Attic here.