Understanding, Shades of Meaning, and Complete Obfuscation

We who work with specifications, such as ASTM E-1417, E-165, and the like are constantly reminded that it is important to be very clear. It
needs to be clear to the person using the specification and it needs to be equally clear to anyone auditing the procedures. If the person working to the specification understands the requirement one way, and an auditor understands it differently, there will be problems. We were recently reminded about exactly how important well worded information is when we saw and read the following details about a piece of equipment.

“Rotor/Stator to use a strong force, the single material or the pulverizes material of each other different type mixes with a distributed
function accomplishes.”

Now this is not written as a specification, but it points out how something can be so poorly written that it conveys no information at all. So we looked around and found several other examples of wording that could be improved. Try this, from a major bank.

“Unfortunately, the request you made to close account can’t be taken at this time because the account is closed.”

The US Supreme Court recently decided on an FCC rule concerning indecent speech. The rule was, “Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.” The court decided that the FCC rule was, ““unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here.”

A further example of understanding came to us from a customer who was being audited. The auditor asked for manufacturer certification
that the penetrant that the inspector was applying by electrostatic spray could be applied that way. The inspector pointed out that
they had been satisfactorily using electrostatic spray with this penetrant for over 20 years, The auditor was unmoved and required our
certification that electrostatic spray could be used. Our technical data sheet pointed out that spray application could be used, but it did not specifically identify electrostatic spray.

To a large extent, what we members of the various ASTM, SAE-AMS, and other committees do each year is to try to make the specifications so detailed that they cannot be misunderstood, no matter how hard one tries. You might think that this is an easy task, but you have no idea how inventive some people can be about misreading or misunderstanding about something. Some of the above examples illustrate this.

To bring the point home, one penetrant user recently queried the chairman of ASTM Committee E-07 about whether a specific different
analytical method could be used to measure the water content of Type A penetrants. A member of the committee suggested that we could just add wording to E-1417 that allowed an “equivalent” method. If this suggestion was adopted, there would be the eternal question and debate over what kind of analytical method would be equivalent. How would one know, and how would one be sure? This kind of wording is what we, on the committee, try to scrupulously avoid. We want to be crystal clear i it is possible. We want to avoid traps that have the inspector thinking one thing and an auditor thinking something different. Believe it or not, it is not easy, but it is our job.