Capital idea!

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC

In "Worst case", I said it is time to stop using uppercase font on drawings. Let's continue that discussion, this time looking at specifications. Not that we should be using one set of rules for drawings, and another for specifications; the same rules should apply to both. With a few exceptions, text should use sentence case - capitalizing only the first word of a sentence and proper nouns. This seems reasonable, but, as we will see, it rarely happens.

Let's start with the exceptions. Section titles, Part titles, and article titles typically are presented in uppercase, and though it's not necessary, it has little effect on readability or comprehension, as these elements have few words. In addition, we're accustomed to it, as it's common in many other publications to use uppercase in those locations.

Beyond that, however, use of capital letters is unnecessary, and can be misleading. The AIA (and other) general conditions state, "Terms capitalized in these General Conditions include those that are (1) specifically defined, (2) the titles of numbered articles or (3) the titles of other documents published by the American Institute of Architects." Those are reasonable criteria for capitalization, though I'm not sure why (3) is included, as it's common practice to capitalize titles of all documents. As written, this statement addresses only the use of capitalization within the general conditions.

For consistency, though, it seems it would be a good idea to follow the same rules throughout the documents. CSI's PRM states, "Capitalization should be consistent throughout the contract documents. Capitalization of the initial letter of certain specific nouns and of proper names defined in the conditions of the contract is appropriate" and goes on to list several terms that should be capitalized. Some specifications make the issue perfectly clear, making similar statements about the use of capitalization for defined terms.

Consistent use of capital letters makes it easy to know when a term is used for the defined meaning. For example, the word drawing can be used to indicate several types of drawings, but when capitalized, it refers only to drawings that are part of the contract documents. This shortcut avoids the need to continually explain which drawings we're talking about. The same applies to the words architect, contract, contractor, and so on, all of which might be used in a generic sense, or might be used to refer specifically to entities identified in the contract, or to parts of the contract documents.

Despite the value of these rules, specifications often ignore at least some of them. Most of them consistently capitalize architect, change order, and contractor when used as they are in the general conditions, but do not capitalize subcontractor, sample, or product data. If the change in rules is explained somewhere, it's not a problem. That usually doesn't happen, though, the result being needless inconsistency.

The elephant in the room is the capitalization of all words in a paragraph subject. Although unnecessary, this form of over-capitalization has been formalized in SectionFormat-PageFormat (SF-PF), which states, "Each word in a paragraph title is typed in title case." Example specifications in SF-PF show use of title case for Cold Weather Requirements, Hydrated Lime, and Mortar for Load Bearing Walls and Partitions. Those examples are fairly innocuous, as it's unlikely they will be used anywhere else. But, because an important and common use of capitalization is to identify defined terms, what does it mean when Laboratory Test Reports, Metal Fasteners, Abrasion and Impact Resistance, Outside Corner Units, or Color and Pattern are capitalized? Can you tell if they are defined terms? If they are, they should be presented as such, and capitalized in the same way every time they appear, not just as the subject of a paragraph. And if, for example, Metal Fasteners are used in several sections, are they the same fasteners in each of those sections?

Capitalization of defined terms is useful, but what happens when a defined term occurs at the beginning of a sentence? To avoid any possibility of misunderstanding, I always use the article the with architect, contract, contractor, and work when those words are used in the defined sense; then it doesn't matter where the term appears.

Finally, definitions should use the capitalization used for the term. For example, I define "furnish", "install", and "provide" without capitalizing. Using "Furnish", "Install", and "Provide" in the definitions suggests those words must be capitalized wherever they occur.

© 2013, Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC
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