Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The 'Should Ratio'

The word 'should' is damnable. We all should. There are probably ten or twelve things I should be doing now instead of writing this, and umpteen that I should have done but have not finished. But 'should' is a more serious business when it is applied to official documents. The 'should ratio' is the number of times the word 'should' appears per page of text. For UN Habitat's New Urban Agenda it is 0.33; for the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction it is 0.37; for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals it is 0.4. But for the Oslo Guidelines on the Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief it is a whopping 1.93. Perhaps we can excuse the Oslo document because it is a set of guidelines, not a formal treaty.

The point about the 'should ratio' is that 'should' is a weaker word than 'will' or 'shall' or 'must'. We live in an increasingly fluid world in which, paradoxically, as the imperative to act increases, the will to do so declines, and along with it the sense of global responsibility. On the one hand, countries and their governments cannot be compelled to act, and some even resent being told that they should act: witness the response of the Trump administration at the G-20 meeting to the climate treaty. However, I firmly believe that should is a word to avoid. In academic papers, when the discussion and conclusion sections start "shoulding", the reader knows that they are in the process of delivering prescriptions that no one will heed.

I urge you, gentle reader, to make use of the 'should ratio'. It is very easy to compute. In a PDF document, a search function will tell you how many 'shoulds' appear and a calculator will tell you how often this is per page. Please go on to name and shame the writers who overuse the word.

Perhaps in the future a piece of research will tell us what is an acceptable should ratio, if there is such a thing. In the meantime, this blog resolves that the word 'should' should be replaced by the word 'must' in all worthwhile initiatives to reduce disaster, curb pollution, stop poverty, diminish vulnerability, increase safety and security, etc. Should be replaced...