In the life of a building design and construction process, various formal and informal forms of communication are used - written or verbal communication and body language are a few. Communication influences decision, and these decisions ultimately need to be documented in formal written formats such as meeting minutes, memos, phone logs, and contract documents (specifications and drawings).

The English language consists of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation that can take years to master. Although our schools have courses that teach the basics of the English language, the reality is that many people simply don't take the time to refine their skills. Those in the legal profession realize that written communication in the English language can be used to get to the real truth of an agreement. Conversely, the English language can also be twisted, with words and grammar misused in a contract in such a way that makes the agreement confusing and unenforceable.


A typical engineering curriculum does not generally include heavy emphasis on grammar and specification-writing courses. Design professionals who write specifications should review examples of proper and improper applications in the Construction Specifications Institute's (CSI)Project Resource Manual (PRM), which can be obtained through the CSI webpage

CSI suggests that the contract documents be clear, concise, complete, and correct. Meeting this standard requires writing style, vocabulary, sentence structure, vocabulary, and spelling. It also involves proper use of abbreviations, symbols, terminology, numbers, capitalization, and punctuation. Communication essentially has three parts: the sender (specification writer), the message (design intent), and the receiver (the contractor).

To what extent should a design professional, architect, or engineer have a good command of the written language? In one sense, it only matters when it matters, and this may only be when a project reaches the stage of dispute that ends up in litigation.


Some examples of confusing words and terms that should be reviewed when used in contract document specifications are shown here. In many cases, people treat certain words as interchangeable when they are not. In some of those cases, one of the words is simply incorrect usage, while other choices may lead to real confusion about how to meet the specifier's intent.

  • accuracy, precision
  • affect, effect
  • all ready, already
  • all right, alright
  • alternate, alternative
  • among, between
  • and, or, and/or
  • assure, ensure, insure
  • cite, site, sight
  • compose, comprise, consist of, include
  • continual, continuous
  • farther, further
  • fewer, less
  • its, it's
  • material, materiel
  • mean, median, average
  • practical, practicable
  • preventative, preventive
  • principal, principle
  • prior, previous, before
  • providing, provided, if
  • that, which
  • whether, if
  • while, although, whereas, and, but

When contract documents are used for dispute resolution, proper or incorrect usage of such terms may help prove or disprove that the contract documents were clear, complete, concise, and correct. An English teacher could be called in as an expert witness to testify that your use of the English language is poor or inappropriate. Obviously, this would be a legal tactic with the intent of pulling out all the stops when an attorney needs more than the engineering truth in an attempt to make a point.

If you are a specification writer, you may wish to consider continuing education courses to help refresh your memory in the basics that most grade school and high school courses cover. A good place to start is with the CSI PRM.