Usage of words and phrases

  1. "Affect" and "effect"
  2. "And/or"
  3. "Any"
  4. "As a minimum" & "not limited to"
  5. "As well as"
  6. "Because"
  7. "Capable"
  8. Coined words
  9. "Comprise"
  10. "Critical
  11. "Designed to"
  12. "Ensure," "insure" and "assure"
  1. "Etc."
  2. Forbidden words and phrases
  3. "Host"
  4. "Include"
  5. "Limited"
  6. Military jargon
  7. Minimum
  8. "Or"
  9. "Up to"
  10. "Which" and "That"
  11. Vague adjectives and adverbs
  12. Words with legal meaning different from common usage
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"Affect" and "effect"

"Affect" is ALWAYS a verb, meaning either "to influence" or "to pretend to have or feel."

"Effect" is nearly always a noun meaning "result" or "consequence." It is sometimes used in formal writing as a verb to mean "to bring about" or "to make happen."

"Effective" is an adjective whose meaning is rarely clear.

"And/or"

This use of the virgule is particularly confusing. It leaves the reader free to choose whether the sentence ought to read "and" or to read "or," whichever reading is cheapest to satisfy. Because of the confusion and expense that may result from the use of this phrase, don't use it in specifications and statements of work.

"Any"

"Any" is an ambiguous word . Writers may intend it to denote "plurality" and readers may interpret it to denote "oneness." Also, when "any" is used to describe the selection of items from a set, it's the reader who selects, not the writer. Which, and how many items the readers select depends upon their point of view.

In the specifications we've reviewed, nearly all sentences containing "any" needed to be rewritten to avoid possible misunderstandings. A good way of testing is to substitute "any old" for "any." If the meaning changes, the sentence needs to be rewritten.

To correctly rewrite sentences with "any," it may be necessary to first make a Venn diagram of the situation to be described. Check it carefully. Then assemble words that describe your diagram. Don't use the word "any."

"ANY OR ALL" means readers may choose any item(s) (they choose which and how many) OR all of them, whichever they prefer. If you have used this phrase, you probably meant "each," "every," or "each and every," which is a phrase of emphasis often used by lawyers. "Each," "every" or "all" nearly always does the job perfectly well on its own.

Here are some examples of misused "anys":

Now that you know just how slippery "any" is, you must be wondering how you're going to express yourself without using it. Don't feel alone. Your formerly liberal use of the word "any" is an expression of your American origin.

Some words and phrases to keep in mind when rewriting are: "each," "every," "one," "sets formed of combinations," and "sets formed of combinations with replacement." Often the word "any" may be simply deleted without affecting the intended meaning of the text, as in example (1). For example (2) try "each pair among" in place of "any two of."

"As a minimum" and "not limited to"

These phrases serve no purpose other than to give the specification writer a false sense of security. Don't use them in specifications. You must clearly spell out all requirements in full. If you don't know what is required, the front-end work needs to be revisited.

Buying from the low bidder, no reasonable person can expect to get more than the absolute minimum required by the contract. What sense does it make then, to say "We'd like more, but we're only paying for..."?

Lawyers often use the phrase "not limited to" in an attempt to dodge a rule of interpretation known as "expressio unis est exclusio alterius," which means "the mention of one thing is the exclusion of the other."  This maneuver doesn't always work for lawyers, and is even less likely to work for engineers.

"As well as"

We often use the phrase "as well as" in ordinary writing to avoid monotonous repetition of "and." In most cases, our ideas are conveyed very well by such usage. In specifications, however, we must bear in mind that we have readers who are trying very hard to keep down the cost of doing exactly, to the letter, what we've told them to do.

When we tell such a reader to do task "A" as well as task "B," we haven't explicitly required tasks "A" and "B" to be done; we've required only that both be done equally well.

"Because"

Be very careful how you use "because" in specifications. Specifications specify; they do not explain. Explaining may needlessly provide grounds for disputes, as in the "reflectivity" case.

Furthermore, the word "because" may introduce both essential and nonessential subordinate clauses. Many readers and writers are not equipped to distinguish between the two. Here's an example:

"The fasteners shall not be sandblasted because of corrosion."

Does the sentence mean "Corrosion shall not constitute reason to sandblast the fasteners," or does it mean "The fasteners shall not be sandblasted since sandblasting them may cause corrosion"? Which did the writer intend? The way it is punctuated requires that we accept the first interpretation, regardless of the meaning intended by the writer.

"Capable"

Capable
See?...It doesn't require that you actually make the thing work underwater, it only requires that you make it capable of working underwater.

Remove the word "capable" from your specification vocabulary.

When you use "capable" to describe equipment, you're not specifying that the equipment be delivered ready to do the job. To do the job it may need other equipment that is not furnished, or it may need to be modified.

In short, when you use the insidious word "capable" in specifications, you will be unwittingly specifying the need for an ECP.

The fact that we often have equipment delivered that actually does things that were specified only as capabilities is evidence of the goodwill of our contractors .

Coined words

While it's OK to coin words when you're writing literature, or even when you're writing memos and reports, it's not OK in engineering specifications.

A fine example of this is the word "vendorized." This coined word was used by a spare-parts specialist when referring to parts that are nearly identical to regular commercial items, but have been slightly modified and given a new part number by a systems integration firm. Its meaning is not obvious from its construction. Even when used in context, and the reader knows it modifies the word "parts," the meaning is elusive.

"Comprise"

The word "comprise" is nearly always misused. The phrase "is comprised of" is often seen in engineers' writing, but is logically incorrect.

Comprise means to include or contain: The whole comprises the parts. The training device comprises the instructor station, the student stations, and the computer system. Instead of tackling this commonly misused word, I recommend that you use "consist," which is nearly always used correctly.

"Critical"

The word "critical," which is very often used by engineers, is likely to cause trouble because it is both vague and ambiguous . Here are a few of its definitions:

  1. Prone to criticize,
  2. Relating to a turning point,
  3. Uncertain, and
  4. Able to sustain a chain reaction.

If you must use the word "critical," be sure that the sentence can not be interpreted two or more ways by choosing different definitions. Also, be sure that, within the scope of 2. or 3., you haven't allowed the reader to decide what your product is supposed to be.

"Designed to"

You'd be better off to specify that the equipment actually "shall DO" whatever you need it to do or "shall BE" what you need it to be. A contractor can reason that, since your spec has numerous cases of "shall be X" and "shall Y," you meant something different in the few instances where you said "shall be designed to Z."

A few phrases you might use in your rewrite are "designed and built to," "designed, built, and installed to," "built to," and "equipped to."

"Ensure," "insure" and "assure"

Ensure means to make sure or certain or to guarantee.

Insure is ambiguous. Use it only when you mean "to issue or procure an insurance policy." Make it clear from the context that an insurance policy is what you're writing about.

Assure means to declare earnestly.  The salesman assured us that the car had been owned by a little old lady who drove it only to church on Sundays.

"Etc."

The abbreviation "etc." is short for "et cetera," which is Latin for "and others" or "and the rest." Its use is inappropriate in specifications because contractors are not required to deliver things that are not specifically mentioned. This means that you must take the time to figure out everything you need to specify, and then spell it out completely.

Forbidden words and phrases

This is our rogues' gallery for specification words. These words and phrases are more trouble than they're worth.  Use your word processor to search them out and destroy them. They are:

"Host"

There may be some confusion as to what is meant by this word since it usually means someone who pays all of the bills for a social event. Try "meeting held at the contractor's plant and chaired by the contractor" or "meeting held at the equipment site and chaired by the Government" or something similar. That way it's not ambiguous .

"Include"

This ambiguous word could mean "consists of" or it could mean "contains as a subset."

Remember, it's the contractor who has the authority to interpret our specifications. Even though you meant "contains as a subset," the contractor may interpret what you wrote as "consists of" and be entirely correct as far as the law is concerned. The result is that you get only the items you spelled out in the list that follows "including."

Even if you add "not limited to," you haven't solved your problem. The same goes for "as a minimum". You must explicitly state the requirements or they are not enforceable.

To reword, sometimes you can fix this one by using the words "be equipped with," "consist of," or "have." Be careful of "comprise".

"Limited"

Make another jump for advice on:

Military jargon

Military terms are not a problem in themselves. The problem is with certain words that have a different meaning in military usage from what they normally have in formal English.

Here are some examples.

"Operational" usually means "working," but in the military it denotes military operations involving troops and equipment.

"Activity" usually means the state of being active, but in the military it sometimes means an organized group of people.

Minimum

There are two types of error likely when one sees the word "minimum" used in specifications.

The first occurs when the writer says something like "The wire shall have a minimum ampacity of 20 Amperes."  The logic of such a statement is ambiguous:  it could mean the ampacity shall be no less than 20 Amperes, or it could mean the ampacity of the wire shall not be greater than 20 Amperes.

The other case is when the word appears in the phrase "as a minimum."

"Or"

The simple word "or" is the most often misused word in drafts of engineering specifications. About 50% of the time when the word "or" is used, the author really intended the word "and."

Remember, "or" may be read in its strictest logical sense, meaning one item OR the other, not both. The English language doesn't distinguish between inclusive and exclusive "or" as we do in logic design, so in specifications, "or" is taken in the sense that is cheapest to comply with.

Whenever you swap an "or" for an "and" while reworking a sentence, be careful to recheck the meaning of the whole sentence after the swap. Make sure that it says exactly what you want it to.

Be especially careful of sentences that contain more than one conjunction. Multiple conjunctions are a common source of ambiguity.

"Up to"

"Up to" is a particularly troublesome phrase in specifications. It can be interpreted three ways, depending on one's point of view.

  1. It may mean "all numbers from the specified minimum to the specified number." This is what engineers usually intend when they write "up to."
  2. It may mean "a single number between the specified minimum and the specified maximum, but not more." This is the way the contractor's attorney will interpret your spec.
  3. In vendors' specifications it often means "sometimes as great as, but not necessarily." They're hoping you'll think they intended "all numbers from the specified minimum to the specified number," and buy their product without testing it.

Usage of "which" and "that" in specs

If you've used "which" to introduce a relative clause, and you want the clause to be an essential part of a requirement, use "that" instead of "which."

"Which" may introduce either an essential or a nonessential clause. In the case of nonessential clauses, "which" must be preceded by a comma. Many writers fail to provide the necessary comma, and consequently, there are often disputes over whether or not a particular "which" clause was intended to be essential or nonessential.

Clauses introduced by "that" are always essential to the meaning of the sentence, and are not preceded by a comma unless the comma serves another purpose. To avoid confusion, avoid using "which" whenever "that" would fit.

You may use ", which" to introduce a relative clause stating a fact that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, but such cases should not occur often in specs. Specifications specify; they do not explain. For an explanation of why specifications should not try to explain, read the article on contextual ambiguity, which presents an example where the writer intended to explain, but succeeded only in confusing.

When "which" is used, its preceding comma is the only indicator of whether the writer intended the clause to be essential or nonessential. In specs, avoid using "which" whenever possible. Otherwise, a comma, or lack thereof, is all you may have speaking on your behalf.

Here's a sentence with a nonessential relative clause introduced by "which":

The compressor shall be driven by a 12-inch pulley, which is dynamically balanced.

In this case, the pulley is not required to be dynamically balanced. The clause ", which is dynamically balanced" merely states the writer's opinion that 12-inch pulleys are dynamically balanced. Changing ", which" to "that" yields a sentence clearly requiring that the pulley be dynamically balanced:

The compressor shall be driven by a 12-inch pulley that is dynamically balanced.

The clause ", which shall be dynamically balanced" would clearly state the requirement also.

Avoid confusion. Write "no less than" or "from ___ to ___." Never write "up to." Be wary when you read "up to" in a vendor's specification.

Vague adjectives and adverbs

Remember, you are writing specifications. The words you use will have a great deal of influence on the finished product. You are directing the work of a large number of people. Individuals may have differing opinions of what the product should be. If you use words that allow a broad range of interpretation, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when it's time for inspection.

Because they may be interpreted however the reader sees fit, such words, unless accompanied by additional details, may actually be meaningless in the context of specifications. Sometimes standardization brings meaning to them. For example, a large egg must be within certain limits of size or US Department of Agriculture regulations say it can't be called "large." On the other hand, the size of a large ice cream cone may differ from vendor to vendor.

Listed below are some vague adjectives and adverbs that have been found in draft specifications. There are many, many more of them in the English language.

aboutacceptableaccurateadequate
adjustableaffordableapplicableappropriate
averagebettercarefuldeep
dependabledesirableeasyeconomical
efficientessentialexcessivegood
highqualityimmediatelyimproper
instantinsufficientknownless
lowmajorneatnecessary
normaloptimumotherperiodically
pleasingpossiblepracticablepractical
properquickreasonablerecognized
relevantreputablesafesecure
significantsimilarsimplesmooth
stablesubstantialsufficientsuitable
temporarytimelytypicalvariable
variouswideworse 

Words with legal meanings different from common usage

These words are special cases of ambiguous words - words with more than one meaning. You must be especially careful how you use them because your documents may be read by a someone who seeks to take advantage of them. Here's a list of a few:

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Last Update: 2 April 2013