The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

22 May 2013

Absolute nonsense

A few weeks ago, while patiently waiting in that a.m. parking lot we call a freeway, I was listening to a drive-time talk show. "Not many specifiers calling in today," I thought. Caller after caller would agree with the host's comments by saying "Exactly!" - even when the stated position was complex, and the callers appeared to grasp only part of the issue.

Scalpel; United States Patent and Trademark Office
Our language is a rich one, with many words available to express a wide range of meaning for most ideas. In writing, this gives the careful writer a way to accurately communicate with the knowledgeable reader. A multitude of synonyms, adjectives, and adverbs makes it possible to express fine distinctions of meaning. Properly used, our language becomes a scalpel, which can be used with surgical precision.

In casual conversation, most people are not careful in their choice of words, and often settle on the first word that comes to mind. Fortunately, we all accept that speaking vocabulary is limited to those words we use most frequently, and casual conversation is not seen as a formal debate. Most of the time, it doesn't matter that we don't take the time for careful consideration and selection of words. Oral communication benefits from the subtleties added by tone of voice, facial expression, and body language, which together enhance - or contradict - the spoken words, and add depth that is unattainable in writing.

Incorrect use of "take" and "bring", or of "I" and "me", are commonplace, but rarely interfere with comprehension when speaking, and nonsensical phrases such as "pick and choose" and "each and every" are used without pause. In a typical conversation, we might use furnish, supply, provide, and install interchangeably, and other synonyms suffer the same fate.

When writing specifications, however, specifiers must become surgeons, carefully selecting each word and using it for its defined purpose. And when it comes to compliance, there are no fine shades of meaning; compliance must be absolute. Yet when reading typical guide specification - or many project manuals - you may have the same thought I had while driving to work: "Not many specifiers writing today."

Elaboration is not a virtue

"Comply with installation instructions." This is a simple, clearly stated requirement; it is hard to imagine there would be any question about what it means. In the context of the contract, evaluation of performance is a simple true-false test: the contractor either did, or did not, comply with the installation instructions. If those instructions call for thirty things and only twenty-nine were done, compliance was not achieved.

Why, then, do we continually see statements like "Strictly comply with…", "Install in exact conformance with…", "Completely fill with…", and so on?

"Yeah, but it's only one word, and I want to make sure the contractor does it right." That sounds reasonable, but let's follow the logic. If the specifications require "strict compliance" with instructions for one thing, but only "compliance" for another, does the inconsistency mean the contractor doesn't have to follow all of the instructions for the second one?

Always specifying "strict compliance" removes the inconsistency, but what does it add? Compliance is just that; it has no shades of meaning. It is a scalpel that cuts with precision.

Completion of the contract requires the contractor to fulfill every part of it. In practical terms, we may consider one thing more important than another, but in the terms of the contract, each requirement must be fulfilled.

Sometimes, in an effort to explain, specifications can become unclear. While the use of "unless noted otherwise" is sometimes unavoidable, using it more than a few times suggests the design professional doesn't know what's in the documents.

When I teach about construction documents, I include the following example of good intent gone awry (I did not make this up!):
The words "Furnish", "Provide", "Include", "Supply", "Erect", "Deliver", "Install", "Apply", "Lay" or "Place": These words are intended to be synonymous and to indicate that the material or work specifically mentioned is to be furnished and installed completely by this Contractor and incorporated into the Project. Whenever a material is to be furnished by this Contractor and installed by another Contractor, or installed by this Contractor and furnished by another Contractor, it will be specifically specified.
The specifier apparently was trying to expand on the complementary nature of the construction documents, as stated in the general conditions. In a misguided attempt to make sure nothing was left out, the specifier destroyed the convenient and usual definitions of several words - and then, after saying they all meant the same thing, used them as if they had different meanings. Amazing!

Words can be as precise as a surgical blade, but only if they're not dulled by misuse.


  1. Surgically written, Sheldon. Well done.

  2. I forgot the rest of the quotation about furnish, install, provide near the end of the article. The next two paragraphs make everything perfectly clear:

    Contractor: Wherever the term General Contractor appears in the Project Documents, it shall mean Trade Contractor.

    There will be no General Contractor on the project. Wherever the term "General Contractor" is used within the Bid Documents, it shall mean that this work shall be provided by the "Contractor" responsible for such work.