U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration


Development and Review of Specifications Attachment 6

Word Usage

The following list identifies and describes word pairs and phrases that are often confused in specification writing.

Accept vs. Approve.

To accept is to recognize an obligation to pay, and is used in the context of, or in reference to, contracts.  To avoid misunderstanding, reserve accept and related forms, such as acceptance and acceptable, for use in reference to the contract between the State DOT and the contractor.


Payment will be made for the actual quantities of work performed and accepted.

The Engineer will decide questions concerning the quality or acceptability of materials.

In contrast, to approve is to confirm agreement with, or to indicate satisfaction with, a situation or circumstance.  Use approve and related forms, such as approval, to indicate official sanction or endorsement of designs, documents, plans, or processes. 


Material may be approved at the source of supply before delivery to the project.

The Contractor shall obtain the Engineer’s approval prior to starting the work.

Affect vs. 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 that should be avoided in specification writing because it is open to multiple interpretations.

All vs Any.  Any and all should not be used interchangeably.  All refers to the entire amount, whereas any is a limited number selected at the discretion of the reader.  In most situations involving specified requirements, all is the more appropriate word. Restrict the use of any to those logical situations in which meeting one criterion among several is enough to satisfy a condition.


The Contractor shall perform the action if any of the following occur:
1.  event A,
2.  event B, or
3.  event C.

The Contractor may select from any of the materials listed.

(misuse of any):

voids greater than 1 mm across shall be filled.

This requirement says that some voids greater than 1 mm, but not necessarily all of them, must be found and filled.  Most likely, the writer’s intention was that "All voids greater than 1 mm across shall be filled."

When reviewing specifications that contain any, see if this term can be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence.  For example, in the example above, the requirement could simply state "Voids greater than 1 mm across shall be filled."  

Amount vs. Quantity. Use amount when money is the subject.  Use quantity when volume, mass, or other unit of measurement is the subject. 

And/Or.  This construction is both awkward and confusing, and leaves it up to the reader to interpret if the statement is meant to include multiple items (and) or present an option (or).  It would be better to write "A, B, or both," not "A and/or B." 

As a Minimum & Not Limited To.  Such phrases should be avoided in specifications.  Requirements should be clearly defined in full.  If elements remain unknown, more research and design work may be necessary.

As approved by the Engineer.  Often this phrase is not necessary as the General Requirements have already established the Engineer’s authority over the job.  However, a variant of the phrase – The Contractor shall obtain the Engineer approval before – is often quite useful to ensure that the Contractor consults with the Engineer at a critical decision point or before proceeding from one stage to another in a multi-step process.

At the Contractor’s Expense vs. At no additional cost to the Department.  Use at no additional cost to the Department instead of at the Contractor’s expense.  The Department cannot insist that the Contractor pay for something (because the Contractor might well turn to another source to cover a cost), but it can indicate that the Department will not pay.

Because.  Specifications identify requirements; they should not explain.  Explaining may provide grounds for disputes. 

Capable.  Be careful when using capable to describe equipment.  This adjective does not require the contractor to provide equipment that is actually ready to perform the intended function.  The equipment merely has to be compatible with performing that function, i.e., adjustments, attachments, or other modifications not included in the contract may be necessary.

Comprise.  Comprise means to include or contain.  The phrase "is comprised of" is often seen in specifications, but is logically incorrect.  The whole comprises the parts. 

Consist vs. Include.  Use consists of or its variants to refer to a complete set or to all the possible items in a collection.  Using consists of before a list of items or choices means there are no possibilities other than those listed.  Use this phrasing to avoid ambiguity when a list is meant to be exhaustive.


Dampproofing consists of a coating of primer and 2 moppings of waterproofing asphalt.

In contrast, the term include is used to introduce or identify a partial list of items or possibilities from among a larger set or collection.  Because include introduces a partial list only, it is not necessary to add a further qualification such as but not limited to or as a minimum.


Each design submittal shall include the following...

Each vs. Either.  Use either only when a choice is implied; otherwise, use each.


Construct a stable shoulder on each side of the roadway.


Construct a stable shoulder on eitherside of the roadway.

Ensure vs. Insure vs. Assure.  These are three different verbs with three different meanings.  The correct word in specifications will almost always be ensure, which means "to make sure or certain." 

Only use insure when speaking of financial protection of the sort offered by insurance companies.  Misusing insure can create or suggest an obligation vastly different from what was intended.


Ensure that protected sites are not disturbed or damaged. (suggests that Contractor should make every effort to protect and restore surrounding protected areas)


Insure protected sites are not disturbed or damaged. (suggests Contractor is to provide financial protection against loss)

Assure means to declare earnestly.  Use assure only when giving reassurance to another person.  Assure will rarely be the right word in a specification.

Provide vs. Furnish.  Though similar, these words are not identical in meaning.  Provide has a broader meaning, which is "to supply or make available."  In contrast, furnish means "to equip." 

Use provide when requiring a contractor to supply an item; because this is usually the intention in a specification, provide is usually the better choice of the two words. 


Provide technically qualified survey crews experienced in highway construction survey and staking.

When the intention is to additionally require that a contractor not only provide an item but also do something with it, couple provide with such additional verbs as use, place, or install.


Provide and place shims as necessary to prevent bending the bracing more than 1 inch out of line when bracing bolts are tightened.

Provide and Place vs. Construct.  Provide (or furnish) and place should generally be reserved for items that are prefabricated.  Construct should be used for items that are built or assembled in the field.

Shall vs. Will.  The word shall indicates an obligation to act and is reserved for Contractor responsibilities.  (Or, alternatively, use the imperative mood, active voice to avoid the use of shall.)

The word will indicates an anticipated future action or result and is reserved for actions and responsibilities of the Department and Engineer.

That vs. Which.  Do not use that and which interchangeably.  That is properly used to introduce information essential to the meaning of a sentence and is not preceded by a comma unless the comma servers another purpose.  Which introduces nonessential information.  That will be the right word choice in a specification more often than which, for the simple reason that specifications express essential requirements.

Use the following rules to decide if a clause should start with that or which:

  • If you can drop the clause and not lose the point of the sentence, use which.  If dropping the clause would change the meaning of the sentence, use that

  • A which clause goes inside commas, a that clause does not.

When vs. Where vs. If. These words are not interchangeable.  When refers to time.  Where refers to place.  If, among its many uses, introduces a conditional clause or sentence.

Use when in discussions about time or chronology.  The presence of words about time, periods of time, dates, or duration are clues that point to when as the appropriate choice.  Another clue is that before or after can often replace when without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Use where to discuss or refer to a physical place, location, or area.

Use if to introduce, or as part of, an If A, then B sentence.  Do not use "when" or "where" for this purpose.

Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000