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Construction

Development and Review of Specifications Attachment 5

Voice and Mood in Specifications

  1. Voice

    Verbs have a property called voice, which may be active or passive. Each has its uses, but each can also be misused. Improper use can lead to misunderstanding, imprecision, omissions, and disputes.

    In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb, leaving no doubt as to who is responsible for the action described. The following example illustrates active voice construction.

    Example (Active Voice):
    (subject) (verb) (object)
    The Engineer will identify sampling locations.

    As illustrated above, in the active voice, the subject of the sentence (i.e., the Engineer) performs the action (i.e., identifying sampling locations).

    This same sentence, recast in the passive voice, would be as follows:

    Example (Passive Voice with Agent Performing the Action):
    (subject) (verb phrase) (prepositional phrase)
    Sampling locations will be identified by the Engineer.

    The above example illustrates the following traits of passive voice construction:

    • The subject is acted upon.
    • The action is expressed using a past participle (typically a verb ending in "-ed") with a form of the "to be" verb (which includes "is," "was," "will be," "shall be," etc.).
    • The agent performing the action appears after the verb in a prepositional phrase ("by the...").

    In passive voice, the agent can also be omitted entirely, as shown below.

    Example (Passive Voice with Agent Omitted):
    (subject) (verb phrase)
    Sampling locations will be identified.

    In the above example, the Engineer may be doing the identification, but the sentence does not make this explicitly clear.

    Use of Passive Voice in Specifications

    The use of active voice may not always be the preferred method if there is a good possibility that confusion may result. Method specifications may become stilted and awkward since the description necessary to explain the process and methods required can be quite involved.

    In some instances, passive voice may be the best method to express a particular idea. This is typically the case when the agent performing the action is obvious or of secondary importance to the main focus of the sentence, or the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.

    For example, many State DOTs use the passive voice in their measurement and payment subparts.

    The accepted quantities will be paid at the contract price per unit of measurement for the Section XXX pay item listed in the bid schedule.

    In this example, the party responsible for making payment (i.e., the Department) is obvious from the surrounding context and the general contracting convention of owners being responsible for payment.

    Misusing the Passive Voice

    A specification’s failure to explicitly assign responsibility for a required action can lead to disputes. In a specification, the passive voice is misused when it leaves the responsible party’s identity subject to interpretation.

    In specifications, this issue can occur when context calls for the auxiliary verb may to describe discretionary actions. Unlike shall and will, may can apply to either contracting party.

    Examples (Misuse of Passive Voice with Discretionary Clauses):

    Material may be sampled and tested at any time. (sampled and tested by whom?)

    Better: The Engineer may sample and test material at any time.

    Work may be eliminated from the contract without invalidating the contract. (eliminated by whom?)

    Better: The Department may eliminate work from the contract without invalidating the contract.

  2. Mood

    Mood is a property of verbs that conveys the writer's or speaker's belief about the truth or nature of the sentence (i.e., whether it is meant to be fact, conjecture, or command). The English language uses three verb moods.

    1. The indicative mood is the most common, and is used to indicate statements of fact and description.

      Examples (Indicative Mood):

      This work consists of…
      The Contractor is responsible for placing the concrete.
      Payment will be full compensation...

    2. The subjunctive mood is used to convey doubt or conjecture, or to pose a "what if" situation. It is rarely, if at all, used in specifications.

      Examples (Subjunctive Mood):

      If initial testing were to confirm...
      If the Engineer were to request...

    3. The imperative mood is used to give a command or instruction. A distinctive feature of statements in the imperative mood is that they omit the subject of the sentence-that is, the subject is understood, but never explicitly stated.

      Example (Imperative Mood):

      Place the concrete.

      Because the context of the specification already makes clear to whom the direction is addressed, the party responsible for carrying out the directive—the Contractor—is left unsaid. The complete sentence is understood to be:

      [Contractor,] place the concrete.

      Or, less awkwardly but no longer in the imperative:

      [The Contractor shall] place the concrete.

  3. Voice and Mood in Specifications

    Constructing sentences using the active voice and imperative mood is the most efficient way to give a command, direction, or instruction when writing specifications.

    1. Use the active voice and imperative mood to convey instructions to the contractor. Typically, this style is most appropriate for conveying contractor responsibilities in the Construction Requirements subpart of a State DOT's specifications.

      Examples (Active Voice/Imperative Mood to Convey Instructions to Contractor):

      Scarify gravel roads to a minimum depth of 6 inches.

      Clear the area of vegetation and obstructions according to Sections 201 and 203.

      Remove and replace all concrete members that are cracked or damaged.

      Where the wall is set on a rocky foundation, place 6 inches of select granular backfill under the reinforcing mesh or strips.

    2. Use the active voice and indicative mood when it is necessary to clarify the party responsible for the action. This can occur when responsibilities of both the engineer and contractor are discussed in the same sentence, and for optional or alternative actions on the part of either the contractor or engineer (i.e., discretionary clauses using "may").

      Examples (Active Voice/Indicative Mood to Clarify Responsible Party):

      The Department and the Contractor will agree to the negotiated price.

      The Engineer may order the performance of the work to be stopped.

    3. When stating a fact as opposed to directing an action, the indicative mood is most appropriate. The Description subpart of most State DOT specifications are typically written in the indicative mood.

      Examples (Indicative Mood to State Fact or Define Terms):

      This work consists of constructing mechanically-stabilized earth walls.

      The Plans indicate limits of disturbance.

      Practical driving refusal is defined as 15 blows per inch for steel piles, 8 blows per inch for concrete piles, and 5 blows per inch for timber piles.

      Keyed riprap is rock placed on a prepared surface and set into place by impact pressure.

  4. Changing from Passive Voice to Active Voice and Imperative Mood

    To change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent responsible for the action in a "by the..." prepositional phrase, or, if the agent has been omitted from the sentence, carefully infer the agent from the surrounding context. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly.

    To convert to the imperative mood, place the verb at the beginning of the sentence and exclude the agent. Note however, that the imperative mood should only be used to convey instructions to the contractor. It should not be used to identify the responsibilities of the State DOT or its representatives.

    Original Passive Voice Sentence Agent Changed to Active Voice Changed to Active Voice/Imperative Mood
    A mechanical broom or sweeper shall be provided which is adjustable to uniform contact with the surface and designed to thoroughly clean without cutting into the surface being swept. Agent not specified; however, the traditional use of "shall" and the general context of the surrounding information suggest that the agent is the contractor. The Contractor shall provide a mechanical broom or sweeper that can be adjusted to uniform surface contact and does not cut into the surface. Provide a mechanical broom or sweeper that can be adjusted to uniform surface contact and does not cut into the surface.
    Concrete shall be thoroughly consolidated against the faces of all forms and joints, including concrete in a previously constructed lane of pavement, by means of vibrators inserted in the concrete. Agent not specified; however, the traditional use of "shall" and the general context of the surrounding information suggest that the agent is the contractor. The Contractor shall consolidate fresh concrete against all form faces, joints, and previously constructed pavement using insertion type vibrators. Consolidate fresh concrete against all form faces, joints, and previously constructed pavement using insertion type vibrators.
    The gravel shall be placed and shaped by power equipment to the specified lines, grades, cross-sections, and depths, without segregation. Agent not specified; however, the traditional use of "shall" and the general context of the surrounding information suggest that the agent is the contractor. The Contractor shall place and shape gravel to the specified dimensions without segregation using power equipment. Place and shape gravel to the specified dimensions without segregation using power equipment.
    The exact location of sampling will be determined by the Engineer. The Engineer The Engineer will determine the exact location of the sampling. Use of Imperative Mood is inappropriate (not a contractor responsibility)

Updated: 11/26/2013
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