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Colin Gilboy
Username: Colin

Post Number: 54
Registered: 05-2000
Posted on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 02:18 pm:   Edit PostDelete PostPrint Post


Copyright 2002 by Herman R. Hoyer, PE, FCSI, CCS


I have received some biting criticism lately for not religiously employing the imperative mood in my specification writing. I think it is time to put this matter to bed, once and for all.

It seems like the basis of contention lies in CSI's Manual of Practice, Module FF/170, Specification Language, within the following quoted text: "The imperative mood is the recommended method for instructions covering the installation of products and equipment." My quarrel with this statement is that it is far too simplistic. The imperative mood is not always the preferred method for specifying installation requirements and procedures. Recommending the imperative mood above all other grammatical formats for installation instructions is an arbitrary philosophy to which I do not subscribe, because it is not always workable and is often awkward.

In my specifications, in a Division 1 Section entitled "Definitions and Interpretations," I give the following explanation under "Specification Language: These Specifications are written in the imperative mood where appropriate. 'Streamlining' is employed where suitable as hereinafter defined. The indicative mood is employed when such sentence structure is necessary to convey the intended meaning in a more accurate or understandable format. All specification language is directed to the Contractor." Note that I do not recommend one grammatical format over another. As a professional spec writer, you have literary license to choose the most appropriate and grammatically correct sentence structure for the occasion.

CSI's expressed bias for the imperative mood has carried over into the Annual Specifications Competition judging rules. I can personally attest to this bias, because, as a submitter of a major hydroelectric project several years ago, I was not awarded an Honor Award for my Specifications, I was told, because I failed to use the imperative mood in some situations where it was deemed by the competition judges to be the preferred method. You don't judge the quality of a specification by whether or not you employed the imperative mood in conveying instructions to the contractor. You judge a specification by how accurately, concisely, and clearly such instructions were conveyed to the contractor regardless of which grammatical format was used. In my case, the Contractor for this Work said that my Specifications were as well written as any he had ever seen.

Has anyone ever wondered why the AIA and EJCDC General Conditions are not written in the imperative mood? Because the imperative mood is not always suitable for this type of contract language. Division 1 Sections are often extensions or modifications of the General Conditions, and therefore need to be written in the same language style as the General Conditions.

Let's go back for a moment and review the parts of MOP Module FF/170 with which I do not agree. First of all, let me say that basically this is a fine document, most of which I am in agreement. However, one of the shortcomings of this document is its failure to clearly identify the audience to which the specifications are directed--in this case the contractor. Nowhere in the module are we told that we are conveying instructions to the contractor. This should be the first requirement for a document which purports to teach the principles of specification writing. It is of the utmost importance that a novice spec writer understand thoroughly that he/she is always talking directly to the contractor--that the contractor is his/her only audience for the written word.

Some of my peers have argued that it is inferred or assumed that the contractor is the audience, and that there is no need to make special mention of this universally understood premise. Tell that to a contractor who will tell you, "if it isn't clearly and properly specified, it won't be provided." Inference, assumption, and intent are not included in the contract documents in any form.

Also, I do not agree with the avoidance of inappropriate terms when they are properly defined. In my specifications, Section "Definitions and Interpretations," I define "as indicated" as follows: "Whenever 'as indicated' is specified in these Specifications, it shall be understood to read 'as indicated on the Drawings.'" It's a space-saving device, and perfectly legitimate.

I have the same objection to the avoidance of certain adverbs. Let's take the first one, "hereinafter," for example. There is nothing wrong with this word if properly used. The dictionary defines it as follows: "afterward in this document." What's wrong with that? I think it is somewhat insulting to assume that dedicated professional spec writers do not know how to use words correctly.

Fellow specifications scholar, Jo Drummond, FCSI, CCS, of Los Angeles, wrote an article similar to this one a few years ago. I agreed wholeheartedly with her expressed language concerns. She expressed the sentiments of many senior spec writers at the time. I wish I had kept a copy of her article.

My purpose in writing this article is to steer a language course which is less narrow and limiting in a spirit of cordiality and comradeship instead of divisiveness. After all, we are all professional spec writers with a common goal--to write the very best construction contract documents.

I expect to conclude this article in my next column with some examples of paragraphs and sentences where the imperative mood is not the best sentence structure for the occasion.

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