Absolute Nonsense

Last week, while patiently waiting in that a.m. parking lot we call a freeway, I was listening to one of my favorite drive-time talk shows. "Not many specifiers calling in today," I thought. Caller after caller would agree with the host's comments by saying "Exactly!" - even though the stated position might be quite complex.

Our language is a rich one, with many words available to express a wide range of meaning for most ideas. In many forms of writing, this gives the careful writer a way to accurately communicate with the knowledgeable reader. A multitude of adjectives and adverbs makes it possible to express fine distinctions of meaning. In the same way, speakers with great command of language are often better at presenting their ideas than those who are obviously groping for the right words.

In casual conversation most people are much less careful in their use of words. Inaccuracies in daily discourse are usually forgivable, though, as our vocabulary is necessarily limited to those words we use most frequently. We just don't have the time for careful consideration and selection of words. Oral communication also benefits from the subtleties added by tone of voice and body language.

Specifications, on the other hand, are absolute. When it comes to compliance, there are no fine shades of meaning. Yet when reading a typical manufacturer's guide specification - or many specifications in project manuals - I have the same thought that I had while driving to work: "Not many specifiers writing today."

Elaboration is not a virtue

"Comply with installation instructions." A simple, clearly stated requirement; no question about what it means. In terms of the specifications, performance is a logical true-false question: the contractor either did, or did not, follow the installation instructions. If those instructions call for thirty things and only twenty-nine were done, compliance was not achieved.

Yet we continually see statements like "Strictly comply with…", "Install in exact conformance with…", "Completely fill with…", and "...on the actual material specified..."

"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 product but not for another does it mean that the contractor doesn't have to follow all of the instructions for the second product?

Completion of the contract requires the contractor to fulfill every part of it. In practical terms we may consider one thing to be more important than another, but in the terms of the contract each requirement must be fulfilled. Each part is as important as any other - exactly, precisely, and absolutely.

© 2002 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA

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