|If you have read the previous sections of this guide you will have already encountered the following articles. These articles are accessible via secondary links embedded throughout the various sections of this guide.||
When referring to clauses, the terms "essential" and "nonessential" are interchangeable with the more commonly used terms "restrictive" and "nonrestrictive." We have used the terms "essential" and "nonessential" for most of this text because they seem to express the distinction more simply.
An essential clause is essential to the meaning of the entire sentence. If you take away an essential dependent clause, the main meaning of the sentence is altered. Doing so to a nonessential clause, while removing information, does not change the core meaning of the sentence.
Whenever someone says that a knowledge of grammar is not needed in order to accurately express meaning, the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses is sure to be mentioned in the argument that ensues. If you wish to be a credible writer, you must master this distinction.
When you write a sentence containing a series of prepositional phrases all in a row, you are running a risk of creating a syntactic ambiguity. The most common textbook example is "He saw the man on the hill with the telescope."
An example that hits closer to home was found in an actual statement of work: "The instructional materials shall be prepared for use by Navy instructors." Who was supposed to prepare the materials, the contractor or the instructors?
Granted, sentences with nested modifiers are often necessary in specifications, but when you need to use one, be careful. Pay attention to which word each phrase modifies. By some stretch of your imagination, if it possible for a reader to attach one of the phrases to a different word than the one you intended, then you must restructure the sentence. Remember, your readers may be very creative.
The Paperwork Reduction Act requires that all Government data purchases be overseen by the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB). This oversight is implemented in practice by OMB's placement of authorization numbers on documents they have authorized for data purchases. In order to handle the volume of purchases done by the armed forces, a standard set of Data Item Descriptions (DIDs) has been authorized by OMB, and the DID numbers they bear are the OMB authorization numbers. Hence, only the data requirements explicitly stated in the DIDs are authorized. You may not expand the scope of a DID, but you may tailor the DID's requirements by deleting items from it. Specifications for data that do not appear on the authorized DIDs are unenforceable because they do not bear an officially assigned OMB authorization number.
By the way, the official status of the DID numbers is why we don't put them in our specifications or SOWs. Policies on this matter appear to differ from one purchasing agency to another. However, if one were to read the language of the Act itself, it would be quite clear that the authorization numbers belong only on the DIDs and on the DD 1423 forms that cite the DIDs.
Certain other data items are also deliverable in addition to those items specified in the CDRL. They are items deliverable under contract clauses of part 52 of the FAR, the DoD FAR Supplement, and NARSUP which may be made a part of the contract. See also Data requirements in specifications and SOWs.
Being fair to all vendors is important for three reasons. The most obvious when we are writing specifications for a public contract is that everyone has a right to be treated equally by government. Requiring one vendor's product to the exclusion of others would serve to deny the others an opportunity to benefit by receiving the order. The remaining two reasons apply to private business transactions as well as public ones. First, it's good business to encourage competition; without it we pay higher prices. Second, having several independent sources for a given product ensures a reliable supply of needed goods, and often permits larger quantities to be obtained on short notice.
Paragraph cross-references cite other paragraphs within their own document. Such citations are highly prone to error. It is not unusual for a reviewer to find a reference either to the wrong paragraph, or to a paragraph that doesn't exist. Two ways to avoid making such errors are:
Acronyms are words like RADAR and SNAFU, which are made from the initial characters of an often repeated phrase. Usually they are capitalized, but in the case of radar and snafu, they have become so widely used that they have been demoted to the status of ordinary English words. When the initial characters don't form a word, they are more properly called "initialisms," but for engineering purposes they're the same. If you're reading this, the chances are that you're quite familiar with the engineering profession's love affair with acronyms.
The standard way of defining acronyms is to capitalize the words they represent, and then follow those words by the acronym enclosed in parentheses.
Acronyms make documents hard to read, since the readers often have to stop and refresh their memory of what some of the acronyms mean. When the document is only a page or two long, it's easy to scan backwards and find the places in the text where the acronyms are defined. In a hundred-paged document, it's not so easy, and it sometimes takes a reader hours of searching to find just one definition.
The ways to avoid this problem are to avoid using acronyms, especially ones that are project-specific, and to put a glossary of acronyms in your document. Make the glossary easy to find, and make sure each acronym is defined.
When the Government warrants the fitness of something, contractors may rely upon the Government's word in preparing their bids. They are not expected to find out whether or not the Government engineer's opinion is correct.
When the cost of doing the job is greater than estimated because the warranted item is unsuitable, the Government may have to pay all of the contractor's added costs to use a replacement item.
These are words that may have more than one meaning. Most English words have multiple meanings. In normal reading we usually can tell from the context which meaning was intended. We really get in trouble when someone goes looking for ways to misinterpret our words.
An example of an ambiguous word is "run," which could have any of 67 different meanings.
Sometimes we find a sentence that has no ambiguous words and can be reasonably diagrammed in only one way, but still leaves its reader confused about its meaning. Consider the sentence:
All surfaces... shall be painted white to increase reflectivity.
Does it mean "paint all surfaces white"? Or does it mean "determine which surfaces have lower reflectivity than white paint, and then paint them white"? We know from other sources that the writer really wanted all surfaces painted.
The infinitive phrase, "to increase reflectivity," was added to explain the specifier's general intentions. In addition, it gave the reader two ways to interpret the words.
Generally speaking, it is unwise to make explanatory statements in specifications. They tend to cause results like the example. The example sentence is taken from a real case. The Government won, partly because the contractor did not have data to prove that some of the surfaces were already more reflective than white paint. Even though the Government won, the dispute caused time and labor to be wasted.
The only way you can avoid making errors of this type is by adjusting your point of view and playing "what-ifs" in your head when you read the text. The ability to catch conceptual errors in specifications and foresee their possible effects comes with many years of experience.
This type of ambiguity occurs when there are two or more ways to read the structure of a sentence. Take, for example:
Flying aircraft may be hazardous.
This is an often-used example, and is attributed to a famous linguist named Noam Chomsky. Does it mean the act of flying may be hazardous? Perhaps it means that airplanes themselves may be hazardous. Maybe it means they're hazardous only when in flight. Regardless, it cannot be resolved from the content of the sentence since "flying" may act as a noun, an adjective, or a verb. Things your English professor called "misplaced and dangling modifiers" also cause syntactic ambiguities. In spoken English, ambiguities are resolved by raising the pitch of a word. The rise in pitch is called intonation. If you need to add intonation to a sentence to make the meaning clear, the sentence most likely has an ambiguity.
Other types of syntactic ambiguities happen when pronouns aren't clearly tied to a single noun phrase, in strings of prepositional phrases and in sentences with multiple conjunctions. Sometimes syntactic ambiguities can be resolved by punctuating the sentence correctly.
Hyphens tie together chains of words that serve as units, usually adjectival phrases. Most engineers tend to neglect hyphens when they are needed.
Commas sometimes play a syntactic role in grouping clauses to indicate their effectivity. For example:
"The flange shall be fastened by three round-head screws, three flat-head screws, and three fillister-head screws all of grade eight."
means you've specified that three of the screws must be of grade eight.
If you add a comma before "all," then you've specified nine grade-eight screws.
A comma preceding a dependent clause often indicates whether or not the writer intends the clause to be essential to the meaning of the sentence. In such cases, the presence of a comma may change a firm requirement into a mere statement of fact . Note well: commas in specifications demand extreme care.
Before you specify something, you must know what is really needed, and whether or not building it is commercially practicable. Supposedly, a great deal of front-end work has been done before you were assigned to write the specifications. We know, however, that sometimes requirements are overlooked or misidentified during these early phases of the project, and the errors may impact the project in its later phases. Such is quite likely, since keeping track of numerous requirements can be very difficult. Large projects often collect their requirements in a database to help them cope with the very large number of requirements.
We have ways to protect ourselves from errors in requirements. These are to make sure that the end user reads, understands, and approves of the specifications, and that the specifications are checked by knowledgeable technical staff people before they are released.
Remember, competent professionals know the limits of their own technical knowledge. They are never hesitant to seek help from other professionals with different specialties. That's teamwork.
When speaking in English, we often leave out a word or short phrase without interfering with the understanding of cooperative listeners. This practice is also permissible in casual written English. We say the missing words are "understood."
When reading specifications, however, nothing is understood. Readers are not necessarily cooperative, and may actually be looking for a way to rationalize failure on their part to deliver acceptable goods.
Examine your sentences for cases where words are "understood" and insert the missing words where they belong.
"The generator shall supply the processor with 10.5 amperes and the batteries 8.5 amperes."
A "Shall supply" has been left out, and it is not clear whether the understood phrase belongs after "and" or after "batteries." The resulting statement is ambiguous.
You should be very careful about specifying equipment by make and model number.
The practice is not considered proper in public contracts since it is unfair to competing vendors. You can't put yourself in the position of deciding what offeror gets the subcontract for an item. If you say "or equal" you've passed that wicket, but you're stuck with someone else's idea of equality. If you can define what you mean by "equal" in terms of the salient features that are needed for your application, then, if you're brave, go ahead.
If the item you're specifying is a part, and not the whole product, you're warranting the specified part as suitable for the purpose . If the part needs to be integrated with other equipment, and the contractor unknowingly integrates it in a way that the resulting system doesn't meet specifications, then you can expect an ECP or a claim .
This term describes the way specifications cite other specifications, which cite other specifications, ... ad nauseam.
For the practical specification writer, this has three consequences.
Policies vary about putting a statement in your specification limiting the effectivity of documents below a certain tier. Find out what current policy governs tiering under your specification and follow it.
The Government specifications and standards contain a very large and valuable body of knowledge about a wide variety of topics. Several series of documents are in this group. They are the Military Specifications, the Military Standards, the Federal Specifications, the Qualified Products Lists, the Military Handbooks, the DOD-adopted Industry Standards, and the International Standards.
The official source of DoD specifications and standards is the Acquisition Streamlining and Standardization Information System (ASSIST). Thousands of documents are listed in the ASSIST. They cover nearly all types of supplies and services that the U. S. Government buys. The documents in ASSIST can be downloaded for free.
It is worth your while to find out what existing documents relate to the item you want to specify, and read them. You will probably learn a great deal, and be better able to write your own specifications. Citing Government specifications is no longer as easy as it used to be: to do so in most cases, Government engineers will first need to obtain a waiver. Usually it is easier to work around the need for a waiver than to obtain one.
The easiest way to avoid citing a military specification is to go look up the specification you wish to cite, read it carefully, and then decide whether you really need to cite the specification in whole. If your real need can be boiled down to a few pages or less, then just copy that part of the specification's text into your own document. You are perfectly free to do so, since Government specifications and standards are in the public domain and not subject to copyright protection. Experience has shown that nearly all citations of military specifications can be eliminated by this method, and that the sections you need to copy usually amount to no more than a few lines of text.
In cases where the above method does not work, you will have to go hunting for an industry standard that will suffice. Initially, when the new policy on industry standards was first adopted, the search for such substitutes was often futile, since many of the foundation military standards were in wide use as industry's standards as well. Why not? The Government paid the cost of developing them, they were well done and they were not copyrighted! However, in the interest of doing the right thing, many of them have been canceled and some of these standards were converted to handbooks. Still, some important documents were canceled outright without replacements. Private enterprise has since filled the void in most cases with new industry standards, many of which unfortunately carry hefty price tags. Often these new standards are patterned very closely after their public-domain military predecessors.
DoD has directed their engineers to cite industry standards rather than Government standards whenever it is possible. Beginning in 1995, projects wishing to cite military specifications and standards have to obtain waivers.
This policy is based on the common-sense premise that industry-standard materials, like aluminum alloys for example, are easier to obtain and less costly than government-standard ones. We also know that routine industrial processes are usually the cheapest and most efficient. Pursuant to this policy, many industry-standard documents have been officially adopted by DoD, and can be easily obtained by armed-services personnel from the (ASSIST) Database. The words "DoD-adopted" mean that the Defense Department has pre-paid the royalties for all the copies that their people need to make.
Copyrighted industry standards, on the other hand, are not as easy to obtain as the public-domain standards issued by the U.S. Government, since the sources are diverse, and the price per copy may be quite high. Furthermore, working engineers usually have no time to place orders and wait for their standards to arrive: they need the documents right away. If you find yourself in such a situation, my suggestion is that you check one of the larger public libraries, which may have standards you seek in hard copy or in an electronic format.
You can check for canceled specifications by looking up each cited specification in the ASSIST or in the NSSN page on the World-Wide Web. The index is updated each month. Several such commercial services are offered, including a few that are published on CD-ROM.
When a specification is canceled, manufacturers stop making products that meet it. I once reviewed a sizable claim filed by a contractor because one of our engineers had specified a type of material that was no longer in production since its military specification had been canceled. We could have avoided the claim by looking up the MIL-spec the first time the contractor's people drew our attention to their difficulties in obtaining the material, and then participating in a decision about what kind of industry-standard cable the contract could substitute. The cancellation notice would have made clear the futility of pressing the contractor to use the specified material.
Performance specifications say what the product must do or what end result will be produced.
Be careful when you see or hear the word "performance," because it's used in two senses in this context. The first sense is the one we've been using here, meaning performance of the product. The other sense means performance of a person or company: that's the sense intended when lawyers talk about "impossibility of performance." In statements of work, the two are usually the same, but in product specifications there may be a difference.
By the way, SD-15 is a good guide on how to write performance requirements.
Design specifications state what materials or methods must be used, or tell the contractor how to go about doing the work.
All it takes to turn an otherwise performance-type specification into a design specification is ONE design requirement.
The preference for performance specifications over design specifications was set forth in the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994. Various agencies have adopted their own policies in compliance with the Act. The Act itself permits design specifications to be used in some cases by saying ". . .to the maximum extent practicable."
The Defense Department took a very stringent approach to compliance by forbidding design specifications unless special, high-level authorization is first obtained. This approach rescinded the authority of nearly all officials to decide upon what was "practicable." The document that imposed this restriction, known as the "Perry Memo," also imposed similar restrictions on citing military specifications and standards. Both of these restrictions were absolutely necessary, since a DoD policy to use performance specifications and industry standards had been in effect for many years, but had been largely ignored in practice.
DO NOT presume that the Government's act of constraining you to write only performance specifications has relieved you of the responsibility for fully understanding the design of products that may meet your specifications. To the contrary, the constraint requires you to be familiar with a much broader range of possible design alternatives, along with their relative advantages and disadvantages.
Review cycles for outgoing documents are a standard practice in all well run organizations, both public and private.
Many people are very sensitive about having their writing criticized, and engineers are no exception. The important thing to remember in dealing with all the criticism your specifications will bring is that you are writing on behalf of the Government, and they really aren't YOUR specifications. Consequently, they have to represent a consensus of the opinions held by all the officials affected by them. Consider the changes the reviewers request to be their best professional advice on how to deal with matters in which they specialize. If they catch errors in spelling or grammar, be especially thankful, since releasing a document containing such errors would cause your audience to doubt your authoritativeness.
The directives permitting the use of Statements Of Objectives (SOOs) rather than specifications and statements of work have had a dramatic influence on the speed with which projects have been gotten under contract in recent years. The documents themselves consist of a very general statement of what the Government needs. They provide guidelines so that the contractors, instead of the Government, may develop the specifications and statements of work that become incorporated in the contract. When the SOO method is used, the Government is delegating the task of specification writing to the offerors. One might think such an approach would eliminate the need for the Government to employ as many engineers as specification writers, and one might also think that this very guide would become obsolete. However, such is not the case. Those who used to be writers are now critics and editors, since it has become more important than ever to do a thorough job of checking the resulting specifications and statements of work.
The important thing is consistency. When you refer to the Statement of Work, the Contract, or the CDRL, it is extremely important that you check them to make sure they say what you think they say.
Since these documents are often revised during the review cycle, you should go back and check all the cross-references just prior to release of the package.
The words "personal services" ordinarily refer to things done by businesses for individuals. We often see them in ads for banks, hairdressers, car dealers and the like. However, this is NOT what those words usually mean when they appear in laws or regulations. Instead, they refer to the types of services ordinarily expected by employers of employees, which require the physical presence of the workers and not just the production of completed work products. By the way, there are several (pun intended) other terms you'll see in acquisition work that likewise may have special legal meanings.
There is a long-standing public policy that personal services are to be obtained in accordance with applicable personnel procedures and not by contract. Generally speaking, personal services are those rendered under supervision by their recipient, often with the use of the recipient's facilities or equipment. Hence, a farmer who contracts with a group of laborers to harvest the crop in his field with his equipment, while he supervises, is actually hiring employees to perform personal services, and not really contracting for the work.
The Government's ban on personal-services contracts was instituted for two reasons: first to ensure that inherently governmental functions are done only by Government workers, and second to maintain Congressional control over the personnel ceilings. Guidance in deciding whether or not a service is personal or non-personal can be found in FAR 37.104.
While the private sector has not been quite so discriminating about categories of service labor in the past, eventually the tax regulations may force private firms into specifying labor in a similar manner to the way it's done by the Government. The reason is that many firms have taken to calling their workers "subcontractors" in order to avoid paying payroll taxes. In many cases, such firms have been told that their so-called subcontractors are actually employees because they were performing personal services.
The words "it," "they," "them," and "their" are hazardous. When a pronoun is preceded by more than one noun phrase, people may argue over which noun phrase the pronoun refers to.
Consider the following example taken from a SOW.
Prior to accepting software or documentation developed by subcontractors, the Contractor shall evaluate them for completeness, technical adequacy, and compliance with Government contract requirements.,
What is to be evaluated? Is it the products, or is it the subcontractors?
Note that pronouns often refer to nouns in preceding sentences. Check a few sentences to the left of each pronoun for nouns that the pronoun may refer to.
Waivers to specify design or to cite Government standards are ordinarily obtained from the Milestone Decision Authority by program managers as part of the approval of their Acquisition Plan. Those who prepare Acquisition Plans should solicit inputs from Engineering regarding whatever waivers will be necessary in the course of their project.
The practice of using physical operations to define obscure phenomena was introduced in the late 1920s by the Nobel laureate physicist P.W. Bridgman, who was faced with difficulties in communicating scientific concepts to his students and colleagues. The history of science in the decades that followed indicates that Bridgman's method was extremely successful. The doctrine of operationalism has been applied in many other fields of science, particularly in the social sciences, where notions are hard to quantify and research findings are often subject to dispute.
The essence of Bridgman's teaching was that actions speak more clearly than words, and that the only way to be sure of communicating an idea was by couching it in terms of a procedure that one can actually perform. For example, the operational definition of a cake is its recipe. Another good example was given by the psychologist E.G. Boring when he offered the definition of human intelligence: "Intelligence is what intelligence tests test." In both cases, a precise definition is provided by indication a procedure by which the phenomenon can be demonstrated. Note that neither is a definition in the sense that one normally thinks of definitions. In this context, ordinary definitions are called "conceptual" definitions to distinguish them from operational definitions. An operational definition may not be very useful in the usual sense, but when it comes time to gather data or make consistent decisions based on an observations, an operational definition is absolutely essential.
In the field of engineering, design specifications are prone to be operational definitions by their very nature. This may be seen in the operational definition given above for the cake, since a recipe is a perfect example of a design specification. Performance specifications are not necessarily operational unless they contain a test method description for each performance requirement. Hence, the test method descriptions communicate precise criteria for acceptance more clearly than the statements of requirements do by themselves.
There is a whole philosophy based on the notion of finding alternate interpretations of peoples' words. It belongs under the more general topic of "postmodernism," and its originator is a French philosopher named Jacques Derrida. Derrida seems to believe that all communication is impossible because the meaning of every text is dependent on the context in which it is interpreted. He seems to take joy in picking apart the works of other authors by looking for things in their writings that can be interpreted differently from what was intended. Typically, he and his followers seek to reveal what they think are sinister uses of language by those in power to maintain their dominance. Like Marxism, deconstructionism is a philosophy for the disaffected.
Many people at major universities, accomplished as they were in their educational endeavors, embraced deconstructionism during the 1980's, and it reigned for several years as a dominant force influencing many who teach our impressionable young people. In the late 80's and early 90's many of the academic mailing lists on the Internet were abuzz with lengthy and often incomprehensible messages written by deconstructionists, preaching doctrine from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, his colleague.
A simple example of deconstructionist behavior happened several years ago when someone posted a message to the technical writers' mailing list, TECHWR-L, containing the familiar quotation from Thoreau, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." The quotation was attacked by a feminist deconstructionist in words like: "I can see that your real intention was to say that most women lead lives of noisy elation." Nonsense, yes, but it illustrates what people may do with your words. In this case the reader took advantage of the writer's unintentional gender-specific wording to twist the interpretation of his intent. With engineering specifications, a deconstructionist would probably be angling for constructive changes, knowing that the customer would be forced to correct an obviously wrong interpretation.
What appears to have been the decisive battle against radical postmodern theorists, including deconstructionists, was fought very cleverly by a physicist named Alan Sokal on the pages of two academic journals. It has become known as the "Sokal Affair," and you may find it interesting to read about.
Why have I gone to such lengths at discussing a topic only indirectly related to specifications? I want to make sure you are aware that there are a lot more people than most of us engineers realize who are highly skilled and eager to misinterpret the things we write. There are two names for them: deconstructionists and lawyers.
It pays to make all the things you write gender-neutral. Avoid words like "man," "he," "him," and "his," which might indicate that you haven't considered that the person involved might be a woman. Instead, use "person," "they," "them," and "their," and refer to people by their currently correct job titles like "firefighter" and "server" instead of the obsolete "fireman" and "waiter."
You write with ease to show your breeding,
but easy writing's curst hard reading.
Richard B. Sheridan,
Bureaucratic prose is a holdover from the 18th century, and the Government has been trying for many years to put an end to it. It is stuffy and impersonal; it uses needlessly difficult language and is often written in the passive voice. These traits are so distracting that readers have a hard time staying focused on important things the writers have to say. Often, people who read a document written in bureaucratic prose end up knowing very little about the document's content. No wonder, then, that important laws and regulations are sometimes inadvertently violated.
Take the time to go over your drafts, looking for ways to say the same thing in fewer words, simpler words, and shorter sentences. The labor will pay off in terms of fewer misunderstandings and less chance of constructive changes.
For some good guidance on how to avoid writing typical bureaucratic prose, visit the Plain Language Action Network's (PLAN) Web site. Note that guidance given on the PLAN Web site is intended primarily for those who work in Government regulatory agencies, and presents ways of improving the readability of regulations and letters that must be understood by the public. There are some notable differences between what is presented on the PLAN site and what we must do when we write specifications to be read by contractors. For example, correct usage of the words "shall" and "will" is still necessary in specifications, despite PLAN's advice to use "must." Nonetheless, the PLAN site is a very good source on how to improve your writing.
I chose these exact words because they echo a slogan created by Phil Crosby, the well known quality-management authority. Crosby has written several excellent books and made a fortune teaching managers the very same principles upon which this guide is based.
By the way, the Government has recently taken steps to solve the problem of having contractors increase their profits by exploiting unclear specifications and thereby generating a need for rework. This has come in the form of contractor performance evaluations prepared by Government workers and used as determining factors in decisions about future contract awards.
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TRAINING SYSTEM DIVISION
|Last Update: 29 July 2015|