National Plain Language Peer to Peer Conference
Tips for Writing in Plain Language
Avoid the temptation to convert all specification requirements into the imperative mood. Responsibilities of the Department or its Engineer should NOT be written in the imperative mood. Reserve the imperative mood for conveying instructions to the Bidder (before award) and Contractor (after award).
For example, consider the following excerpt taken from a specification:
- Incorrect: Measure and pay for excavated quantities in accordance with Section 202.
The above statement was an incorrect conversion of the following original statement:
- Excavated quantities will be measured and paid for in accordance with Section 202.
It would have been better to either have left this statement in its original passive form (allowing the traditional use of the word "will" to convey that this was a Department responsibility) than to have inappropriately converted it into the imperative.
To add greater clarification, the statement could have been converted into the active voice, indicative mood, by identifying the Department as the "doer" of the action:
- Better: The Department will measure and pay for excavated quantities in accordance with Section 202.
In the above example, the general contracting convention of owners being responsible for measurement and payment made the conversion error rather apparent. However, as contractors assume more responsibility for items that were traditionally the responsibility of the Department, (e.g. certain sampling and testing requirements), the identification of roles and responsibilities is not always so clear.
For example, consider the following statement:
- To verify compliance with smoothness requirements, the surface will be tested using a 10-ft straightedge at random locations.
This requirement was converted into the active voice/imperative mood as follows:
- Test the surface using a 10-ft straightedge at random locations to verify compliance with smoothness requirements.
The above statement implies that the Contractor will be performing this testing. The agency, however, had intended for this to be verification testing performed by its own inspection staff. In this light, it would have been better to convert the statement into the active voice/indicative mood as follows:
- To verify compliance with smoothness requirements, the Engineer will test the surface using a 10-ft straightedge at random locations.
When the conditional requirement "may" is used with the passive voice, it is sometimes difficult to determine the "doer" of the action or at whose discretion the work may or may not be performed. For example, consider the following:
- Material may be sampled and tested at any time.
- The remaining downstream culvert may be left in place if no portion of the culvert is within 4 feet of the subgrade.
- An altered hole pattern may be approved based on slab testing and field conditions.
- If the pavement is bonded to the subbase, brief pressure rises (10 seconds or less) to 600 pounds per square inch may be allowed.
- Testing may be allowed to continue if the slabs are not interlocked or under compression.
Use of the active voice with the doer identified (i.e. indicative mood) would make these statements clearer (e.g., "The Contractor may…"; "The Department may…").
- When selecting the appropriate verbs to use in imperative statements, be careful to not turn natural processes (e.g., erosion, oxidation, settlement) into Contractor actions, as was the case in the following excerpts from published specifications:
- Original: Any resultant rutting of the surface shall not exceed [ ] inches.
- Incorrect Conversion: Rut the surface a maximum of [ ] inches. (The spec in question dealt with passing equipment over unstabilized soil. The intent wasn't, as implied by the use of imperative mood in this statement, for the Contractor to actually place ruts in the roadway. Note: I've seen similar incorrect conversions when editors are intent on switching all negative statements (e.g., not exceed) into the positive. This is a worthy goal, but it can lead to losing some of the nuance of the original.)
- Original: The soil shall have undergone a reasonable degree of settlement before subsequent courses are placed.
- Incorrect Conversion: Settle the soil before placing subsequent courses. (In addition to just sounding awkward, this phrasing also suggests that the Contractor is to apply means and methods to actively induce settlement of the soil, which wasn't the intent)
- Better: Allow the soil to undergo reasonable settlement before placing subsequent courses.
- Original: The material shall be suitably stored and protected before oxidization can occur.
- Incorrect Conversion: Before oxidizing the material, make sure to store and protect it properly. (suggests that the Contactor is to actively work to oxidize the material)
- Better: Suitably store and protect the material to prevent (or minimize) oxidation.
- Original: Through the proper selection and maintenance of BMPs, soil erosion shall be kept to a minimum.
- Incorrect Conversion: Erode the soil minimally through the proper selection and maintenance of BMPs.
- Better: Minimize soil erosion through the proper selection and maintenance of BMPs.
Avoid overusing the imperative mood "crutch" of ensure that. When used appropriately, ensure that can be a powerful and efficient way to convey items that the Contractor must control. However, overuse and resulting lack of sentence/language variation can lead to repetitive writing that isn't much easier to read than the original passive voice construction. Particularly when dealing with equipment and material requirements, passive voice construction might actually have been more useful by highlighting what is to be ensured, instead of who is to do this (which is usually the Contractor). See the following example (which probably could have benefited from the use of an itemized or bulleted list of requirements):
- Ensure that the controller is unaffected by radio transmissions. Ensure that the controller is capable of displaying 3 messages sequentially. Ensure that the controller has an adjustable display rate with a minimum of 3 seconds per phase. Ensure that the controller is capable of storing 100 user programmed messages in nonvolatile memory that will retain the programmed messages when power is interrupted. Ensure that a controller display screen is provided that allows the operator to review messages before displaying on the message sign. Ensure that the controller display shows the operator all programming instructions. Ensure that the messages are able to be programmed at the sign with an integral or plug-in keyboard, and remotely with a cellular telephone.
- When using introductory clauses to modify a statement constructed using the imperative mood, don't drop the subject of this clause if it is not the Contractor. For example, I've often encountered variations of "Before approving the…" immediately preceding and instruction written in the imperative mood to the Contractor. It would be better in such instances to say something along the lines of "Before the Engineer approves the…"