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"I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution."

President Ulysses S. Grant

Someone drives an Obstructive Bureaucrat or an entire bureaucracy crazy by simply being an Obstructive Bureaucrat, and following the rules to the l-e-t-t-e-r, making things increasingly inconvenient for the bureaucracy.

There are two variants:

  1. Those who meekly go along with the rules because they are the rules.
  2. Those who deliberately use the rules against a bureaucracy.

The tropes: Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist; overlap since they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the public’s wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use Bothering by the Book to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.

Contrast The Last DJ. Compare Zeroth Law Rebellion. Compare and contrast Loophole Abuse.

Examples of Bothering by the Book include:

Comic Books

  • Mr Logic from Viz combines this with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. An example being upon hearing a shop assistant say "Everything's a pound", he immediately assumes that he could buy the entire contents of the shop for a pound, rather than costing one pound per individual item. He is told of his mistake, and then gets confused and tries to buy the cash register for a pound, only to be told it's not stock. He subsequently explains what the shop assistant should have said to him, before getting carried out by security.

Fan Works

  • The Harry Potter fanfic The Sleeper Awakes has Percy Weasley, of all people, pulling this on Umbridge and her Muggle-Born Registration Commission and making their job much harder by "just doing his job according to the Ministry rules."
  • Similarly, another Potter fanfic, The Power He Knows Not by "Nom9de9Plume", capped off its last extant chapter with the confrontation between Albus Dumbledore and a Ministry of Magic clerk who hates him and is determined to make his time in her office as painful as possible—mainly by ignoring his assumption that Rank Hath Its Privileges and following every last Ministry regulation to the letter.


  • In The Terminal, Viktor Navorski's home country goes through a revolution, rendering his passport useless. He can't go back home, and he can't step onto U.S. soil. Frank Dixon, the U.S. immigration officer, hopes that Viktor will try to break the rules by leaving the airport, which would make Navorski Somebody Else's Problem. Viktor doesn't, making him something of a Spanner in the Works.
  • Saavik, Spock, and Valeris all try quoting regulations at Kirk at various points in Star Trek movies II, VI, and XI. He brushes them all off as annoyances and tells them to go ahead and follow his initial order.
    • Though he does apologize to Saavik, and tells her to keep doing it, after she proves to be right.
  • In The Incredibles, Bob Parr would like to help his customers navigate Insuricare's labyrinthine policies to receive their insurance coverage. As a side-effect, this makes his boss absolutely furious because Parr's actions are causing legitimate payments the business can't weasel out of.

Mr. Huff: They're penetrating the bureaucracy!

  • In The Pentagon Wars, Lt. Col. Burton (Cary Elwes) keeps trying to report the deadly flaws in the Bradley Fighting Vehicle but is consistently thwarted by his superior, Maj. Gen. Partridge (Kelsey Grammar). After consulting the U.S. Army Book of Rules & Regulations, Burton publishes a report detailing the vehicle's every flaw and sends it to Partridge. Partridge orders the report rewritten to make the Bradley seem perfect. Burton follows regulations and writes a memo on the rewrite and sends it to all 198 people involved in the project. Partridge is furious and wants Burton disciplined, but his underlings tell him that Burton followed regulations to the letter.
  • In Brazil, Sam keeps the Central Services workers out of his apartment (for a while, at least) by asking to see their form 27B/6, claiming he's "a bit of a stickler for paperwork." From their reactions, it's pretty clear it's a bureaucratic formality they usually gloss over.


  • Many a fairy, genie, demon, or other magical creature is beholden to a set of rules but will cause as much damage as they can devise within those rules.


  • In the Discworld novels it's suggested that golems rebel this way (they tend to parody various robot related tropes) until they are free. This has the side effect of convincing people that they are stupid and/or insane.
    • As Vimes points out in Night Watch, The Oath of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch has a lovely little loophole in it: the duties of a Watchman are to "... uphold the Laws and Ordinances of the city of Ankh-Morpork comma serve the public trust comma and defend the subjects of His stroke Her bracket delete whichever is inappropriate bracket Majesty bracket name of reigning monarch bracket..." - but nothing about obeying orders. Another loophole in this oath was that the oathtaker promises to protect the subjects of his / her majesty, but doesn't say anything about defending the majesty themselves.
    • In Night Watch, Vimes uses this to rein in the Cable Street Particulars of the past (in his own time, the Particulars have been revived as a plainclothes division for occasions when stealth and espionage are required). There are numerous protocols in place to ensure the fair treatment of prisoners, but for the longest time, the Particulars have been entirely ignoring protocol because their reputation is so nasty that even other coppers are afraid of them. Vimes is able to take Refuge in Audacity and hobble the Particulars just by insisting on following protocol to the letter.
      • A few of the Treacle Mine Road Watchmen try to pull this on Vimes in Night Watch, but it doesn't last very long.
  • Used for a last-minute save in Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free. The genetically-engineered quaddies having been legally defined as "post-fetal experimental tissue cultures," Captain Bannerji refuses to fire on them on the grounds that it could be considered an act of hazardous waste disposal, for which the proper forms have not been filled out.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast, Jake's family decides to pull a White Mutiny (see below under Work to Rule) in order to pay him back for antics during Zeb's and Hilda's tenures as commanding officer and make sure he doesn't pull the same stuff when it's Deety's turn.
    • In Heinlein's Glory Road he said there are two kinds of military clerks. The first kind will quote the regulation that prohibits you from doing what you want. The second will dig into the book until they find one that helps you.
  • In Harry Potter, Professor Umbridge uses her political pull from the Ministry of Magic to "legally" put herself in supreme control of everything at Hogwarts, passing rafts of edicts forbidding any of the other professors from teaching topics she doesn't approve, keeping around professors she doesn't like, or really doing anything not officially sanctioned by the Ministry. Of course, when Peeves and the Weasley twins start wreaking havoc (at the possible suggestion of Dumbledore), the teachers just sit by and let it happen, claiming that they weren't sure they had the authority to do anything about it.
    • Also, Harry's Ironic Echo when Umbridge is confronting the centaurs, although he probably didn't think of it like that.
    • Dumbledore also manages to piss Umbridge off when she fires Trelawney by pointing out that although she has the power to fire teachers at Hogwarts, it doesn't mean she can also evict Trelawney from her home there, as the authority to decide the actual residency at the castle still lies with the Headmaster. He follows it up by reminding her that her right to hire staff applies only if he himself is unsuccessful in finding someone to fill the position, and hires Firenze (a centaur, who Umbridge is prejudiced against) on the spot to take over as Divination teacher.
  • The main character of Ella Enchanted adopts this as a lifestyle. She is required by magic to obey all orders given to her and finds this spectacularly annoying. So when those orders are not the sort that will harm anyone, she will obey those orders right down to the dregs, just to spite the person giving them. When ordered to sing louder, she practically shouts. When then ordered to sing quieter, she drops to a whisper, etc.
  • Tisiphone and Cerberus of Ravirn, both under orders to kill the title character, invoke this to allow him to free Persephone. When he escapes into Hades proper from the borderlands, Cerberus refuses to chase him because his job is to guard the borders, and Tisiphone insists on a strict interpretation of jurisdiction that prevents her and the other Furies from entering Hades at all.
  • Elizabeth Wu from Star Trek: Stargazer is the living personification of the trope, stalking the halls of the USS Stargazer and writing up every junior officer for extremely minor violations of Starfleet regulations. It isn't until Gilaad Ben Zoma, the ship's first officer, does the same to her that she loosens up.
  • Atlas Shrugged. When Dagny comes back from Galt's Gulch she cooperates with her brother for the first time and follows his every rule. He complains that she never been so uncooperative in her life.
  • In Transformers: TransTech, Cheetor and his officers do this frequently, in an attempt to do their best to do the right thing in a world where the rules would be otherwise weighted against the downtrodden. "Withered Hope" in particular has Airazor assisting the protagonists by resolving a large chunk of issues for them via some extremely creative Exact Words usage of obscure regulations.
  • At the end of The Dresden Files book Ghost Story the threat of this is used against Queen Mab to enable the person she's trying to ensnare to still be able to act independently.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel X-Wing: Isard's Revenge, we meet a sympathetic Star Destroyer commander who was ordered to bombard a village because one of its inhabitants tried to kill the local warlord. So the commander took a shuttle down to the village to tell everyone how doomed they were, going on in great detail about his firing plans, and explaining that as soon as he got back to his ship, their homes would be flattened by turbolasers. Then he got back in his shuttle and called up his officers to go over the firing plan again. And then had them calibrate the sensors and weapons. Then do another weapons check, so the show of force would be absolutely perfect. Three hours later he finally went back to his Star Destroyer and proceeded to annihilate the long-since-empty village. The commander spun his report to emphasize how the survivors would be sure to spread their terrible story, and the warlord didn't kill him, but warned him not to fail him again. The commander would go on to accept "insubordinate" officers from the warlord's other crews who would otherwise be executed, and eventually surrendered to the New Republic.
  • Example of retaliatory Bothering by the Book in A Civil Campaign. Aral sponsors a bill making it easier for peasants to change from one Feudal Overlord to another. This naturally increases the rent of the more popular ones. One Count decided to breed several dozen daughters in artificial wombs-a newly imported technology-thus increasing his population without having to compete fair and square. He claimed that the law had nothing to say about the matter; it wasn't kidnapping as they were technically his children. Whereupon The Emperor pointed out that if they were his children, he had to pay the dowry for each and every one of them. That was the end of that.

Live Action TV

  • Used in an episode of Scrubs when the nursing staff declared a "slow down" until their demands were met. Kelso specifically states that they'll work just fast enough that he can't fire them for it.
    • And that he doesn't really have to worry about it because they won't do anything to hurt the patients.
    • Another episode has the cast unwilling to fudge the paperwork for an uninsured patient who happens to be a friend of Dr. Kelso in retaliation for him giving them drab scrubs.
      • Although that was more they got in trouble for a small problem(steeling the old scrubs) so they made sure not to make a big problem.
  • One episode of Corner Gas has Davis and Karen deciding "Work to rule" as a form of protest. When they tell the mayor they're working "By the book", the mayor actually gives them a copy of the rule book, which is an encyclopedia-sized tome. They decide to go back to work normally.
  • In Red Dwarf, after Kryten quotes one too many Space Corps Directives, Rimmer reads the entire book of directives himself and uses them to make Lister, Cat and Kryten's lives into a living hell.
  • A classic Crowning Moment of Awesome from Star Trek: The Next Generation features Captain Picard using this very trope as a tactic against the Sheliak, a race of Obstructive Bureaucrats.
  • A Crowning Moment of Awesome from the first season of Babylon 5 had Earth's senate pass a special law giving the military governor of the station (Commander Sinclair) authority to end a dockworkers' strike by any means necessary. They obviously expect this to mean Sinclair will quell the strike by force; Sinclair, however, determines that the means necessary to end the strike involve drawing money from the station's defense budget to address the dockers' concerns, justifying it by saying that the smooth operation of the docks is necessary to the station's defense.

Commander Sinclair: Never hand a man a loaded gun unless you know where he's going to aim it.

    • A later episode had Captain Sheridan effectively buy time to shut down the pro-Earth (and officially unofficial) Night Watch by careful use of this trope. The orders he'd received gave Night Watch a frankly scary array of powers and authority, but had come from the Ministry of Peace, rather than through Earth Alliance military channels. He refused to implement his orders because they were from outside his chain of command (this could only buy time, as Night Watch were one of President Clark's pet projects, and he was in the chain of command. Commander in Chief, to be precise).
  • An episode of The Phil Silvers Show featured Sgt Bilko's superiors trying to deal with him by pushing him into the Military Police to stop his various cons. Bilko deals with this by arresting everyone he can for the smallest infraction of the rules. On one occasion when one woman mocks his tone of voice for saying he's just following the rules, Bilko has her arrested for impersonating an officer.
  • Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye: In "The Holocaust Survivor," Obstructive Bureaucrat Randy denies Myles' expense reimbursement for a rental car. The group decides to get back at him by drowning him in expense vouchers for cheap, mundane things that they bought out of pocket, each on a separate form.

Sue: I used three sheets of a yellow pad at home last night for FBI business. That should be three vouchers.

Randy gets back at them by reimbursing the rental car in jars of unsorted coins.
  • In The West Wing, Donna and Margaret attempt this after Leo brushes off their concerns about the West Wing's compliance with carpel tunnel syndrome regulations (due to all the typing the assistants do) with "Type slower." Donna gets all the aides, including Margaret, to do just that. Unfortunately for them, it's subverted, however, when Leo's stony "I-am-but-seconds-from-firing-you" glare upon finding out about this from Margaret ("Margaret, look at my face right now.") prompts her to immediately capitulate, and Donna is informed that her little scheme wouldn't have worked anyway—the White House is exempt from such regulations.
  • A major point in F-Troop was the Captain using the rule book to determine everything, including "Sunrise, How to determine for shooting people at" and refusing to believe in vampires since "They're not mentioned in the manual."

Tabletop Games

  • In pen-and-paper RPGs, doing this is called being a Rules Lawyer.
  • Magic: The Gathering has a very large number of stages and checks to be done in each turn. In a lot of games nothing happens during many of them. As a fairly minor minor example of how this could be potentially frustrating:

Player 1: I end my precombat main phase.
Player 2: Okay.
Player 1: The combat phase begins. Beginning of combat step.
Player 2: Oookay.
Player 1: Declare attackers step. Do you have a response?
Player 2: You don't have any creatures...
Player 1: I declare no attackers. Declare blockers step.
Player 2: There is nothing to block.
Player 1: Are you declaring any blockers?
Player 2: No.
Player 1: Combat damage step. No combat damage is dealt. End of Combat Step. Combat Phase Ends. Second Main Phase begins.

    • Magic actually does have rules that allow you to shortcut this process if both players have nothing to do, so trying this sort of thing in a tournament will get you a penalty for stalling and/or unsportsmanlike conduct for fishing for penalties. It's one key thing judges are taught to spot. In casual play, of course, your opponent will probably just start throwing stuff at you.
      • One famous incident at a French Nationals had a group of players try to use a typo in the most recent printing of the official card texts (Magic has a ton of errata on old cards) to use a devastatingly powerful combo. The head judge used his discretion to overrule the official wording ahead of the tournament and the players were disqualified when they still tried to do it. The DCI fully backed the judge's ruling.
    • Actually, the declare blockers step and combat damage step is skipped if no attackers are declared.

Web Original

  • The Onion: Regulation Spitefully Obeyed To The Letter
  • Articles written by the SCP Foundation use metric units, in keeping with a scientific viewpoint. From time-to-time, American submitters intentionally write the exact metric equivalent of a measure, without rounding, to make a point. For example, if an object is supposed to be 600 feet, it's damn sure going to be written as 182.88 meters.

Web Comics

  • This Full Frontal Nerdity strip. Here, the bureaucrat seems rather resigned to Nelson's use of the trope—or perhaps impressed with his Genre Savvy.
  • In Tales of the Questor, Unseleighe Princeling Dolan stated that Quentyn had until the rooster crowed the dawn to evade the Wild Hunt. Little did Quentyn know that Dolan had had all the local roosters killed ahead of time. Fortunately, Quentyn's allies went even further in Bothering by the Book: A character nicknamed "Rooster" crowed convincingly without Dolan looking.
  • This Freefall strip explains why Florence isn't necessarily bound to follow every single directive given to her:

Florence: "The surest way to cause your supervisor to fail is to follow his every order without question."

    • In another strip, Sam gives her a piece of advice regarding orders she can't get out of with the above philosophy, with the added bonus that it's invariably frustrating to authority figures (who he makes a hobby of pissing off):

Sam: Never ask for permission. Always arrange matters so that you automatically have permission unless someone actively takes steps to stop you.


Truth in Television

  • Work to Rule is a labor action taken when workers follow rules and regulations to the letter, doing no more work than required and taking no shortcuts. Often, in cases of particularly labyrinthine rules, this can slow the workplace to a crawl or even cause it to grind to a halt, if the rule book doesn't match actual practice or how you can get anything accomplished.
    • The term in the military is White Mutiny.
    • Another term for this is "Malicious Obedience."
  • "Malicious Compliance" is the common management phrase for this, particularly if it isn't just taking advantage or a protest but an attempt to actually subvert or destroy an individual, project, or organization.
  • There weren't exactly any explicit rules, but since slaves in antebellum America couldn't exactly rise up and overthrow their masters, and running away was rather risky, many would instead rebel passive-aggressively by working as slowly as they could get away with, and intentionally screwing up so that their masters would think they were stupid and not trust them with difficult tasks.
    • This is also the origin behind Capoeira. The slaves couldn't spar to train for an eventual overthrow, but could play and dance, which they used to disguise the training. To this day, sparring and practicing in capoeira is called playing.
  • Taken to ridiculous extents with this video of Israeli MP Ahmad Tibi. In short (and for non Hebrew speakers), Tibi is serving as substitute chairman for the meeting, and as one of the MPs. He (as MP) wishes to take the podium in order to present a bill to the Knesset - but then there will be no chairman to substitute him. Therefore, he (as an MP) must request from himself (as chairman) to allow himself to present the bill from his current seat.
    • An idiomatically translated transcript of the best bit:

MK Ne'eman: Does your honor have a conflict of interest?
MK Tibi: There is a conflict - the possibility of recessing came up, but I said that today was a special day, there's a semifinal, so in spite of it, there's no reason to hurt people's chances of getting home on time. [Looks down at his text] Your honor the chairman, which is me, your honor the Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen the Members of the Knesset, there is no doubt that--
MK Shai: You need to set a limit for your time!
MK Tibi: I'll call myself to order if I carry on.

    • It should be noted that Tibi is an Arab Israeli and the leader of the Arab Ta'al party; by custom, Arab parties are excluded from the Cabinet and (although it is officially frowned upon) otherwise made to feel unwelcome among many legislators. He found himself at the head of the meeting somewhat unexpectedly, so one can't really fault him for enjoying doing this kind of thing to thumb his nose at the rest of the Knesset.
    • In addition to his special situation as an Arab MK, his YouTube record would indicate that he makes a habit of this kind of improv comedy on slow days in the Knesset.
  • Similarly to Ahmad Tibi, but probably apocryphally, future Confederate General Braxton Bragg once was serving as both quartermaster of a small frontier base and commander of one of the companies stationed there. As company commander, he filed a supply requisition that, as quartermaster, he felt duty bound to reject. With neither half of him willing to yield, the issue had to be referred to the incredulous post commandant. According to Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, that worthy exclaimed:

"My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!"

  • In personality theory if this behavior becomes pathological the first type could be considered to have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality disorder and the second type could be considered to have Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder. Both disorders are theorized to have the same cause of being enraged at having to bow to authority. The obsessive-compulsive just wants it to stop and follows authority with the pent up rage inside so they'd shut up already. The passive aggressive expresses the pent up rage by secretly undermining authority while pretending to be nice and loyal.
  • Jesse James was killed by an assassin while unarmed. The response of the government was to try the assassin for murder-legally; sentence him to hang-legally; and pardon him-legally. All in one day.
  • During the Great Louisiana Maneuvers before World War II General George Patton won the exercise by ordering supplies from Sears-Roebuck with his own money. Fortunately for American arms, the government was pleased at his unorthodoxy.
  • In the late 1930s Pan Am was expanding into the Pacific and not coincidentally tracing supply lines for the upcoming war. When it wished for naval protection for an airstop on Canton Island, the State department balked at this, either because of red tape or the belief that not preparing for war would magically prevent it. So Pan Am appealed to the Guano Islands Act of 1856 designed to provide naval protection to American Guano prospectors. And then designed a shell company called the American Nitrates Corporation. It is not clear whether or not said company actually made a profit selling guano, but it is clear that nobody really cared.