Smart questions
Smart answers
Smart people
Join Eng-Tips Forums

Member Login

Remember Me
Forgot Password?
Join Us!

Come Join Us!

Are you an
Engineering professional?
Join Eng-Tips now!
  • Talk With Other Members
  • Be Notified Of Responses
    To Your Posts
  • Keyword Search
  • One-Click Access To Your
    Favorite Forums
  • Automated Signatures
    On Your Posts
  • Best Of All, It's Free!

Join Eng-Tips
*Eng-Tips's functionality depends on members receiving e-mail. By joining you are opting in to receive e-mail.

Posting Guidelines

Promoting, selling, recruiting, coursework and thesis posting is forbidden.
Jobs from Indeed

Link To This Forum!

Partner Button
Add Stickiness To Your Site By Linking To This Professionally Managed Technical Forum.
Just copy and paste the
code below into your site.

Use of Shall, Should, May in formal documents etc.Helpful Member! 

KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
28 Jul 08 18:03
I know this has been partially discussed before, such as in thread174-58057: "how to use SHALL or MUST" but I can't find a really good example of how these words are defined in contract documents etc.  I looked in some of the ASME specs I have and didn't see them defined and I looked up MIL-STD-961D but they only define shall and not very succinctly.  

Quote (4.9.6):

h. "Shall", the emphatic form of the verb, shall be used throughout sections 3, 4, and 5 of the specification whenever a requirement is intended to express a provision that is binding. For example, in the requirements section, state that "The gauge shall indicate . . . " and in the test section, "The indicator shall be turned to zero, and 220 volts of alternating current shall be applied."  For specific test procedures, the imperative form may be used, provided the entire method is preceded by "The following test shall be performed" or similar wording. Thus, "Turn the indicator to zero and apply 220 volts of alternating current." "Shall" shall not appear in sections 1, 2, or 6 of the specification.
i. "Will" may be used to express a declaration of purpose on the part of the Government. It may be necessary to use "will" in cases when simple futurity is required.
j. Use "should" and "may" whenever it is necessary to express nonmandatory provisions.
k. "Must" shall not be used to express a mandatory provision. Use the term "shall."

I recall seeing good definitions in BAE Systems Statements of Work etc but no longer have an example

I'm writing an internal procedure and it's planned to be mandatory for some departments but only strongly recommended for others (don't ask) and I was thinking of using shall & may etc to identify this.  I may avoid it altogether but I 'd still like to have a good example for future reference.

So if anyone can provide, or link to one, I'd appreciated it.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

carnage1 (Electrical)
28 Jul 08 19:30
In the documentation I used to write shall and must meant required and should meant it was recommended and may meant it was allowed. anything not documented was not allowed at all.
MintJulep (Mechanical)
28 Jul 08 19:48
I don't think you will find a "standard" for this.

For a contractual document, the best thing to do is define the terms right in the document.

That would probably work for your (peculiar) case as well.

Just use "shall" everywhere and exempt the appropriate departments in the transmitting cover letter.
hokie66 (Structural)
28 Jul 08 20:24
In the first person, will is imperative, and shall is not.

In the second and third person, shall is imperative, and will is not.

The nuances of English.
JMirisola (Mechanical)
28 Jul 08 20:58
You shall do as I say. You may disobey, but you will be fired. Do as you must.  

Jeff Mirisola, CSWP, Certified DriveWorks AE

Helpful Member!  CoryPad (Materials)
28 Jul 08 21:55
I have seen these terms defined in DNV specifications, such as DNV-OS-F101 SUBMARINE PIPELINE SYSTEMS.  Section 1 GENERAL, subsection C Definitions has the following:

C100 Verbal Forms
101 "Shall":Indicates requirements strictly to be followed in order to conform to this standard and from which no deviation is permitted.

102 "Should": Indicates that among several possibilities, one is recommended as particularly suitable, without mentioning or excluding others, or that a certain course of action is preferred but not necessarily required.  Other possibilities may be applied subject to agreement.

103 "May": Verbal form used to indicate a course of action permissible within the limits of the standard.



Please see FAQ731-376: Forum Policies for tips on how to make the best use of Eng-Tips Fora.

KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
29 Jul 08 11:13
Thanks Cory, that's the kind of thing I was looking for, star for you.

I know what they mean generally & could look up a dictionary if I was unsure but I remembered seeing good contractual definitions before and wanted to see if anyone had good examples.  I know there wont be a universal standard.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

HgTX (Civil/Environmental)
29 Jul 08 12:30
hokie--that rule has pretty much gone away in U.S. English. Now 1st person is like 2nd & 3rd person.


Eng-Tips policies:  FAQ731-376: Forum Policies

hokie66 (Structural)
29 Jul 08 19:29

You could be right.  I was just parroting what I was taught, but that was about 50 years ago.  A lot has changed in the language since then.  Some for the better, some not, but that is only my opinion.
Artisi (Mechanical)
29 Jul 08 22:34
I think it comes down to convention or preference and the intended formality of the speaker / writer.

Shall / will are imperatives.
You will /shall advise any changes to the contract. You shall / will rectify any faults in construction.

Should is a suggested directive.
You should attend all site meetings.

May is a considered action.
If the contract is finalised prior to the contract date, you may request final payment.
xwb (Computer)
30 Jul 08 5:22
When I was in school it was I shall, we shall and everybody else will.  Came as quite a shock when I first read technical documentation without first reading that shall meant mandatory.  Took quite a while to get used to it.  I still can't write it naturally so I leave spec writing to those who prefer it to programming.
kazt (Electrical)
30 Jul 08 10:31
"Thou shall not use the word 'shall' in any technical documents". This is from the technical writing genius I worked with for many years. As designers we had to live by this moto, no words like "shall" were to be used in our documents. So we had to become very creative to imply the same meaning without using this word in our documents.  
HgTX (Civil/Environmental)
30 Jul 08 11:00
There's a movement in some quarters for plainer English. AASHTO puts out a set of sample specifications all using active voice, imperative mood, and when our agency revamped our specs a few years back, we did the same.

It's a matter of issuing orders, rather than describing a desired state of affairs.

passive: The concrete shall be poured in 8" lifts.
AVIM: Pour the concrete in 8" lifts.

It's not 100% free of "shall" (or "must", which I think should be just as valid as "shall", and I really don't understand why people don't like it), but overall it makes for cleaner, more understandable language. One does need to define at the beginning of the document who the subject of the imperative is, though.

It's a hard sell for people who feel insecure without a lot of legal-sounding wordage.


Eng-Tips policies:  FAQ731-376: Forum Policies

HgTX (Civil/Environmental)
30 Jul 08 11:31
In the world in which "shall" is the first-person version of "will", "should" is the first-person version of "would".
That world is not my world.

In my world, "shall" is mandatory, and "should" means a desireable course of action.

But I also don't think is saying "shall" and "should" have the same degree of obligation. They both mention obligation, but obligation indeed has degrees.

I don't make a difference between "must" and "shall".

I had a South African supervisor who I think did make some kind of distiction between the two, though. He kept saying "you must" to me in situations that just didn't seem like he ought to be quite so imperative. I never really did get a good handle on exactly how he meant it.


Eng-Tips policies:  FAQ731-376: Forum Policies

KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
30 Jul 08 11:34
I've now written a draft of the requirement/specification and avoided formalizing should/shall/may and their meanings within the context of the document.

Just to once again say that I know basically how to use them in everyday English (though I'm sure I often bend/break the rules with my sloppy grammar) and am as capable as anyone of looking them up in a dictionary etc.

My real question was in the specific context of contract documents, statments of work etc where I have seen definitions similar to what CoryPad gave.

As regards what you put HgTX, I have an issue with it from my field of Engineering documentation.  I have always been taught to list requirements on Engineering drawings, requirement documents etc, not instructions, in fact the ASME standards for drawings at least say this.  As such "The concrete shall be poured in 8" lifts." would be more correct to me than "Pour the concrete in 8" lifts."  This appears to be the opposite of what AASHTO is telling you to do.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

HgTX (Civil/Environmental)
30 Jul 08 12:54
Every organization has their own standards, and it can't be up to an individual spec-writer to try to change that in just one document; it has to be agreed to at the top. AASHTO is trying to get others to move toward imperative specs, and many transportation agencies have done it. AASHTO hasn't done this in their own specifications, though, at least not the design and material specs.

I've found that for a process-type specification with lots of actions, the active format works really well. Do this. Do that.

For something like a material specification where it's all about what something needs to *be*, it doesn't work as well. "Carbon content shall be <20%" doesn't translate well into imperative. Blind edicts to do everything one way or another inevitably result in awkwardness, since the natural language mixes both.


Eng-Tips policies:  FAQ731-376: Forum Policies

KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
30 Jul 08 16:26
I think I can agree with you there HgTX.  For actual 'work instructions' obviously the active form is more appropriate most of the time.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

stevenal (Electrical)
30 Jul 08 16:30
"Pour the concrete in 8" lifts."

The problem with the statement above is that it seems to apply to all readers. Forward the spec to your boss for approval, and he is expected to perform the pour. Give the spec to prospective bidders, and all the prospective bidders (high, low, in between, no bid) are expected to pour. I believe making the concrete the subject rather than all the readers is the point of the passive voice tradition. Either that, or address the spec as a letter: "Dear winning bidder..."
HgTX (Civil/Environmental)
31 Jul 08 11:19
As I said above, if you do this you definitely have to clarify who the subject is. Our imperative specs include an explanation that the directives are aimed at the contractor.


Eng-Tips policies:  FAQ731-376: Forum Policies

KimBellingrath (Mechanical)
31 Jul 08 13:46
I think some of the confusion comes from the difference between a proposal or bid or rfq vs a drawing note. On a proposal, you are describing something that will be done in the future, should you win that contract. In these cases, 'shall' or 'will' works fine.
However, on a drawing, I have always started each note with the verb in a command form such as:
"MARK PART PER SPEC NO. ###-##-##" OR...
I once had a vendor that read "PART WILL BE PAINTED PER MIL-P-###" and cleaned the parts then shipped them to us so that they could be painted. He thought we were just telling him what would happen next so that he would degrease them and so he proceeded to get them ready for whomever was going to paint them. That is why I use the command form at the beginning of each note.
KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
31 Jul 08 14:21
Kim, per my understanding for the ASME Y14.100 standards etc. and how I've been taught even in the UK, your wording is arguable wrong for drawing notes.

Drawing specifies the requirements, for instance for your first example I'd say something like:

"HOLES TO BE FREE OF PAINT" this is the end result you want and something that can be inspected.

However, I know many people disagree.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

KimBellingrath (Mechanical)
31 Jul 08 14:53
JEEEEEEEEEEEZE! I was just making an point! Actually, I save "TO BE" for Shakespeare fanatics. "WILL BE" is a little bit wishy-washy as well.

I have been wording notes as shown above for years and never had a question from a vendor about our requirements.
Numerous specs suggest a standard sequence that attempts to match the chronological path of production as well:
KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
31 Jul 08 15:08

Ahh, the old logical order thing which ASME Y14.100 explicitly says you don't have to do but I tend to do because to me it makes the drawing clearer (I don't normally enforce it on others though).

I did just notice that 14.100 does define the use of should, shall & may  for drawing notes (4.26.4 if anyone cares).  Which would suggest to me that they are terms to be used on drawings, at least for mechancal items etc.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

KimBellingrath (Mechanical)
31 Jul 08 15:44
You will never do as well as you can if you only do what you HAVE to, Kenat. I know the spec says that you don't have to but the sequence helps and makes drawings easier to chek as well.
Good Night
KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
31 Jul 08 15:49
Like I said, I do it but don't feel I can fairly enforce it on others, although I will often suggest it 'in blue'.  Unless I change our DRM to say so, then...

I suspect order not being important is largely in 14.100 because of the way notes were edited in old manual drawings and the rules about not re-using notes identifiers etc.  Having them roughly in order tends to make them easier to understand.

I agree about the standards generally setting a minimum standard.  However here it's a minimum standard that most people still fail to meet by a mile.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

Ross0684 (Mechanical)
3 Aug 08 23:23
Preambles to Australian Standards:
" the word 'shall' is to be undertood as mandatory,
and the word 'should' as advisory.
Cutiee (Electrical)
4 Aug 08 7:49
in the spec i used to read:

The word "shall" indicates a requirement.

The word "should" indicates a recommendation.


fcsuper (Mechanical)
4 Aug 08 10:51
Shall, should and may are defined in ASME Y14.100-2004.  Shall is a requirement.  Should and may are statements of preference.  According to how I've seen this discussed, the perceived difference between should and may is that should means something is strong suggested (required with unstated exceptions), and may is simply a suggestion or preference, but not a requirement at all.

Matt Lorono
CAD Engineer/ECN Analyst
Silicon Valley, CA
Lorono's SolidWorks Resources
Co-moderator of Solidworks Yahoo! Group
and Mechnical.Engineering Yahoo! Group

fcsuper (Mechanical)
4 Aug 08 10:55
"In the first person, will is imperative, and shall is not.
In the second and third person, shall is imperative, and will is not."

I would suggest this isn't as true as it once was, but yes, this is a rule of thumb.  However, general procedures and specifications should never be written in the 1st person. :)

Matt Lorono
CAD Engineer/ECN Analyst
Silicon Valley, CA
Lorono's SolidWorks Resources
Co-moderator of Solidworks Yahoo! Group
and Mechnical.Engineering Yahoo! Group

KENAT (Mechanical) (OP)
4 Aug 08 11:25
fcsuper, I already found it in 14.100 per my 31 Jul 08 15:08 but thanks.

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

fcsuper (Mechanical)
5 Aug 08 13:52
Long threads are hard to read through sometimes.  Sorry.

My problem with ASME's way of doing this is that they use dated language where they state requirements as matter of facts (don't use any shoulds, wills, shalls, mays).  Some instructions are stated as being the case, without any clear directive.

Matt Lorono
CAD Engineer/ECN Analyst
Silicon Valley, CA
Lorono's SolidWorks Resources
Co-moderator of Solidworks Yahoo! Group
and Mechnical.Engineering Yahoo! Group

Reply To This Thread

Posting in the Eng-Tips forums is a member-only feature.

Click Here to join Eng-Tips and talk with other members!

Back To Forum

Close Box

Join Eng-Tips® Today!

Join your peers on the Internet's largest technical engineering professional community.
It's easy to join and it's free.

Here's Why Members Love Eng-Tips Forums:

Register now while it's still free!

Already a member? Close this window and log in.

Join Us             Close