How to read nonsense

Robin McAlpine

Right, for this week’s newsletter it’ll be some of my trade secrets. Or perhaps more accurately, some useful techniques I use in trying to work through public policy or bureaucracy more generally. This came up in a team meeting we had this week and the team said ‘you should tell people this’. So…

When presented a government document, a consultation, a White Paper, a manifesto, a discussion paper or whatever, how do you go about approaching it to make sense of it as quickly as possible? 

Because when you are first presented a pile of bureauchatter – the weird, obtuse language of public bureaucracy – the only natural response is to glaze over. Believe me, I’ve been dealing with these documents for decades now and when I first sit down to look at a new government consultation it never (and I mean never) increases my will to live.

If you’re not used to it, the dispiriting trudge through more dense jargon easily tips into utterly intimidating confusion and anxiety. If you find this happening to you, congratulate yourself on your humanity. And then try the following:

First of all, skip forewords and the like unless you actually want to get a feel for the rhetoric in which something is being presented. But never skip Executive Summaries because a lot of the time those are all you actually need to read. If you read the Exec Summary and you can’t work out what the wider document is doing, the wider document isn’t doing anything.

Next, extract all adjectives. Really, any time at all that you come across a describing word you can basically ignore it. The difference between ‘ambitious proposals’ and ‘proposals’ is 100 per cent down to the neediness of the author. You will know by the end of these steps whether it is ambitious or not, or whether it is really a ‘wellbeing whatever’, is ‘transformational’ or is ‘ground-breaking’. Adjectives are for fiction.

Which gets you to the action part. Here I always begin with what Alison Rowat reminded me this week is a Simon Hoggart technique – reverse a statement and if the reverse is absurd, ignore the statement. This is super-easy – “we want to prevent children from dying from disease unnecessarily”. Well, would anyone ever admit to actually wanting to kill children unnecessarily? Nope? OK, lob that in the mental bin.

Next is a pet technique of mine, developed over the many, many years when I had to create a strategy to respond to a new set of government guidelines or targets to be imposed on whomever I was working for. I’d be presented with a long set of recommendations or proposals or whatever and I’d have to decide what our response should be. For tactical reasons it is always best if you can agree with the maximum possible.

So look for absolutely anything which says anything at all like ‘will continue to’ or ‘will build on’ or anything that implies doing more of something that is already being done. Because it’s already being done. It literally doesn’t matter. 

Another to whip out is ‘inevitabilities’. One we’d get a lot when I was doing strategy for the university sector was ‘over the next three years, seek to grow demand for Scottish education from overseas students’. Aye, that market was expanding rapidly in every English-speaking education system in the world so if we all went away and did nothing but drink cups of tea for three years, that one was in the bag.

(Politicians love putting in no-change and inevitable promises in lists of recommendations because in three years time they will say ‘we have delivered on 92 per cent of our promises’ of which 82 per cent were either already happening or were going to happen anyway.)

Then pay no attention to anything that isn’t a word or a number (or a clear visual representation of a number), or a structural diagram. Glossy photos are pointless, but so are the vast majority of the daft wee ‘infographics’ that pepper these documents these days. You could spend forever on the paperwork generated by The Promise and have no idea what they do other than draw cartoons. 

Often the same is true for ‘box-outs’, the self-contained explainers or illustrated examples that often pepper these works. These are not without value if you’ve failed to understand what the paper is trying to get at or your interested further in the subject. But for the purpose of just getting to the bottom of things they are very rarely essential.

Which leaves you with a collection of verbs, nouns and numbers with lots of connecting words. So let’s start to hack our way through those. The numbers are the most problematic for a lot of people – if you feel reasonably numerate there are good approaches to dealing with them, but that is a whole other article and it is probably Craig Dalzell who should be writing that one.

If you’re not… do your best. It is often the part of the whole process which people find hardest. It’s about frames of reference – often the bureaucrat preparing the paper is seeking to give you a frame that makes something appear in a good light and this is the part where I’ll be most likely to depart from the document and check secondary sources. “We aim to increase X by Y” – fine, but what is everyone else increasing X by?

Then again, you may be asked about targets and this one is more specific – read what is there and, if you can’t immediately work out what the target is, there isn’t one. Targets were in high fashion until 2007 when the financial crisis and fall-out led to an awful lot of missed targets. Nowadays you often find that a target is little more than a general aspiration. Those are pointless.

What I can’t really help you with is the nouns. These are either straightforward (the hospital, the patient, the doctor) or they are gibberish (the unit of consumption, functional transitional flexibility, the bottoming-out process). If it’s the latter you can probably guess what they mean, or possibly do a web search for the phrase, or ask someone. It’s just a different language. (But not always – Functional Transitional Flexibility is literally meaningless drivel I produced by using an online gibberish generator.)

And so now we get to the whole point – the verbs. What is actually going to happen? What are the actions? A verb is very much a ‘you do or you don’t’ thing, right? Well, not quite – we have one last burst of ignoring to do. Because not all verbs are equal – there are 11 kinds and they’re not all ‘doing words’.

For example, “I hope to save X from Y” contains two verbs, one of which is an action verb (“save” – something you do) but because the other is a stative verb (“hope” – something you are) and the stative verb is uncertain, it basically invalidates the action verb. I mean, I hope to be a rock star…

Likewise intransitive verbs where something is happening but no-one is doing it. “I broke the speed limit” is transitive because someone did it. “The speed limit was broken” is just a state of being with no-one responsible. Pay attention for that difference because it is often crucial.

Axillary verbs (the “has” in “this has proved difficult in the past”) and linking verbs (the “became” in “this challenge became urgent”) do add information but are also used to conceal information (“this has proved difficult in the past because we were really bad at it” or “this challenge became urgent because we screwed up”). Just be conscious you may be missing something.

Modal verbs are to be discounted. These are a kind of auxiliary verb which specifically frames tones and intentions. These are murder. The “could” in “we could then…”, the “would” in “it would then open up the possibility”, the “might” in “this might lead to”. Basically when you see a modal verb like this, in your head always add “or might not” straight afterwards.

The rest are specific (verbs used for the past tense, verbs which have multiple forms) which you’ll be perfectly familiar with and will quickly understand whether someone is going to do something or already has. And all that is left are action verbs (something you definitely do, like “stop” or “turn”) and transitive verbs (something done by one thing to another as in “we cancelled this event”).

If you then go back to the beginning of this it turns out you can ignore the vast majority of that document you are staring at in despair. Don’t try and engage with every word, or even every sentence. Don’t try and work out what everything means, because a lot of it won’t mean anything much.

Follow the numbers, the nouns and the verbs which actually commit someone to doing something or explain clearly why something was done in the way it was done. Between them they always tell you what a document is actually for or about or what it is trying to do. Ignore much of the rest because there is a good chance it is specifically trying to trick you into thinking something not sustained by the numbers, nouns and verbs.

On an average day I might have had to deal with a report with 20 recommendations we were required to enact and I would quickly note all but two of them were basically meaningless, one was fine and there was only one we objected to. “We agree with 95 per cent of this…” These days I can look at a Scottish Government economic policy document and work out there is nothing much in it – in under ten minutes.

If you ever face one of these monstrosities in real life, give this a shot. Don’t be the slightest afraid to simply disregard the enormous amount of padding in public policy documents. Just ask this one question: if this all happened, what words contained in this tell me what would actually be different?

4 thoughts on “How to read nonsense”

  1. Campbell Anderson

    Fascinating Robin,

    I always enjoy your contributions, they are enlightening and entertaining. Thanks.

    In this article you demonstrate a hierarchy of reading skills with yours being much higher up the scale than mine. My usual strategy is even more fundamental than any you suggest, ignore them and leave it to others like yourself to interpret for me. I do appreciate the lack of democracy this strategy suggests so maybe Nicola could incorporate such advanced reading courses as essential ongoing lifelong learning in the Sorted chapter. 😁

    I hope not to have included too many superfluous words.


    1. Robin McAlpine

      Right, I’m not meant to be replying ‘cos I’m knackered and trying to get done a little early for the long weekend. But since this is my pet subject…

      You’re spot on Campbell – me too. Nine times out of ten if I want to know what something means I will go to a secondary source who I respect and trust and find out what they make of things. That is certainly the case in a lot of technical areas and we’re lucky in Common Weal to have a really good network of people who can do this for us. Our care experts tell me what to think about care, our energy experts explain complex energy issues to me and so on.

      But there’s a paragraph I deleted for length and it pointed out that while I do this on public policy for work, we’ll all face this bureaucracy at some point in our lives. The mad health and safety requirements for holding a community event, the paperwork of a building warrant, the mountain of paperwork we had to go through to adopt our son. One way or another you will face bureaucratic drivel in pursuit of something you want or need. These techniques apply there. You just need to work out what boxes the ‘other side’ need ticked and what they actually want you to do to tick them. It would be so much easier if they just told you, but that would make it look like a tick-box exercise so often they make you work it out. This is a good way to go about it.

      And remember, communicating information and communicating with humans are not the same thing. ‘Just the facts’ is what you want for information-sharing, but when humans talk to each other we do so incredibly inefficiently. Why? Because that’s what makes us feel human – describing our feelings, repeating ourselves as we try to work out what we really mean, enhancing what we say to make it more exciting or less scary or kinder or whatever. That wonderful complexity isn’t improved by stripping it down to its core essence. Let’s be honest, the woman in the greengrocers isn’t really seeking my view on the current meteorological conditions, she offered ‘lovely day isn’t it?’ so we can be humans together.

      So now, it was a lovely comment and neither one word to many or two few because it was what you wanted to say…


  2. Thank you Robin I will deifinitely be sharing this widely! Of course, if we could persuade people writing and publishing these documents to write in plain language in the first instance, all our lives would be a hell of a lot easier!
    I will continue to rely on CW’s helpful analysis of the piffle.


    PS think you mean passive rather than intransitive, but then, I am a happy pedant.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      I am a giant fan of the Einstein quote (I paraphrase): if you can’t explain it to a seven-year-old you probably haven’t understood it yourself. I hold to that firmly. The only times I will deliberately complicate writing is for… people who write public policy and who are sometimes sniffy about things presented to them in plain language.

      Meanwhile on transitive and intransitive verbs – yes, I’ve been getting emails… I’m truly not a grammar expert. I’m told reliably that the key is the object in transitive/intransitive. I.e. it’s only that something was done to something, not who did it. That’ll teach me for trying to write in jargon…


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