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Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

(OP)
I've always used the phrase "appears..." in stating my conclusions when writing reports. Long time lesson learned from an old engineer. An example:
  • The wall appears to be non-loadbearing.
In the context of a report, I will have my scope outlined, my standard limitation of liability, my observations, my assessment (which would include a statement similar to above), and then a summary. This allows me to build observational evidence before stating a conclusion. Recently, a client has given me feedback that the use of "appears to be..." does not instil as much confidence as their preferred statements which were something like below:
  • The wall is non-loadbearing.
  • I guarantee that the wall does not bear any load from above.
While I can appreciate their concern, the backstory to the undertaking of the project leads me to take it with a grain of salt. Simply put, I don't rewrite reports.

I'm interested in hearing others opinion on the use of "appears..." versus "is...". Is this semantics to you, or are there liability protection reasons? I'm also curious if there are other statements that engineers are using as go-to's when writing reports. Something like "in general conformance with" or similar...

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

I dislike the use of 'appears'. If you can't say whether the wall is loadbearing or not, find out.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Unless you know 100% that the wall is non-loadbearing I'd leave "appears" in as an appropriate qualifier. Always better to appear more uncertain than you actually are than to every overstate something. Heck, the wall itself could be non-loadbearing, but you can't actually remove it without removing a column embedded in the wall that isn't presently observable. The consequences of being wrong are far worse one way than the other.

I’ll see your silver lining and raise you two black clouds. - Protection Operations

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

(OP)
@hokie66: Does your viewpoint change if the example is switched to something that is more numerous or repetitive in nature? For example:

The shearwall nailing appears to meet the drawing specifications.
The vertical rebar appears to be be spaced at 16" oc.
The joists appear to be ...

I think in some of these cases I would use a statement with "________ is in general conformance with the design" instead, but the intended meaning would be the same.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

No, I would only state what was observed, and as far as can be observed, "___is in general conformance with the design". But if you can't see it, you can't say "it appears".

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Quote (In the context of a report, I will have my scope outlined, my standard limitation of liability, my observations, my assessment (which would include a statement similar to above), and then a summary.)


I haven't done one in a while, but I also include a description of observations to include information obtained from others, and an assessment of that. I also note photographs... with only a few representative ones included... and others are available and that they have been taken, downloaded, retained and stored solely by myself. The one firm I worked with had an IT policy of reducing the size of all photos for storage. I always made CDs/DVDs of all my project photos. I don't know what that would do in the event they were used as evidence.

I have no objection to using the word 'appears'... There's nothing imprecise in using the term. If the client objects, then tell him it can be removed with a subsequent increase in cost due to the added time required to measure properly and remove the word.

Rather than think climate change and the corona virus as science, think of it as the wrath of God. Do you feel any better?

-Dik

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

I also don't like "appears" ... not very conclusive or convincing.

the wall is assumed to non load bearing (conservative assumption used in analysis). ?

another day in paradise, or is paradise one day closer ?

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

If it's important to know if the wall is loadbearing, and it is within the scope of what you were tasked to determine, then I would avoid using "appears." State what you do know and the limits.

For example:
"External observation indicates a non-loadbearing wall."
"The bearing is suitable for the application based on the assumed loading and operating speeds."

State what you know. If there is uncertainty, then state the origin of the uncertainty. If you recommend a more in-depth analysis to verify or eliminate uncertainty, you can recommend that.

Provide a clear answer, or provide the reason(s) that you cannot be certain.

--SirPhobos

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

skeletron,

A lack of certainty is a standard editor complaint. I remember proof reading alignment instructions for a shaft encoder that stated that it "may require" alignment. It was a 2048 step encoder, so alignment was to all practical intents and purposes, necessary.

On the other hand, as noted above, you truly meant to be uncertain, with good reason.

--
JHG

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

(OP)
@SirPhobos: Excellent advice and examples. Thanks!

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

I don't like 'appears' because it's a little vague and some people could interpret it to suggest that you've seen it.

I'm not opposed to uncertainty (I think I've used 'seems' in a similar way) but I'll tend to use 'In my judgement' when I can't or haven't proven something that seems reasonable. Like, if you haven't verified every stud in a house, but you've seen some and, in your judgement, it's framed with 2x4 studs @ 16" on center spacing.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

"Appears" is a fantastic word. It allows one to form an opinion based on what he/she sees, yet still allows other possibilities to exist based on what he/she cannot see.

Nothing is 100% certain. You can apply your 40+ years of experience, perform a diligent and thorough field inspection, and still draw a false conclusion because of details or conditions that you were not aware of, visual or otherwise.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Quote (MotorCity)

"Appears" is a fantastic word.

It is. But an even more fantastic word is "because".

With "because" you can clearly state your reasons, assumptions and limitations.

For example: "The wall appears to be non-loadbearing because it is parallel to the floor and roof joists and there are no columns visible below it."

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Appears sounds like you're trying to weasel out of trouble. (Even if you've done the due diligence.) Add justification.

The wall is not load bearing based on evaluation of ____.

Review of ____ found that the wall was not load bearing.

The presence or absence of 'appears' will not let you avoid responsibility when casting a judgement. At the end of the day the addition of 'appears' just adds hesitation to the end user.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Quote (MotorCity)

"Appears" is a fantastic word.

I suspect that, in this case, @MotorCity has at least half an eye to the original meaning of the word "fantastic". Quite right too.

A.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Closely related to 'fantasy'?

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

"There is no indication that the wall is a load-bearing wall."
  • There are no indicators to the contrary.
  • It is a wall.
  • If it does bear load, that probably wasn't the intent.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Quote (Closely related to 'fantasy'?)


Maybe down under... but up here it can include a lot of things you don't know for sure, and that the client doesn't want to know if he has to pay for it. I guess you could stipulate that it is a wall without stipulating bearing or non bearing... or maybe yet, it's obvious that it's a wall. Why even mention it? pipe

Rather than think climate change and the corona virus as science, think of it as the wrath of God. Do you feel any better?

-Dik

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

(OP)
Loving this discussion.
I like the approach of using a compound sentence. Part 1 = whatever your preferred word statement (appears, seems, is, etc.). Part 2 = the qualifier for that conclusion (as indicated by ____, because the _______, as observed through _____, etc.).
It's interesting that there are people on both sides of the fence. Maybe physical symbolism of how engineers (probably) are able to very easily play devil's advocate in theirs and their own work.
Carry on.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

As a bald single statement "The wall appears to be non load bearing" this is not enough as it neither confirms nor denies that the wall is load bearing and you might as well not say anything, i.e. like most politicians or celebrities....

It's the sentences or added bits which mean you say why you reasonably think that and then what you would need to do to confirm this. So add ...as the joists above run in parallel and there is no connecting wall above it on the next floor. A number of floor boards in the room above would need to be removed to confirm this or small holes made in the ceiling to allow visual inspection.

Last time I got a house survey done before buying it was a complete waste of money and the whole report was peppered with "couldn't confirm" and "no access to lift floor boards" and "couldn't see enough"..

Remember - More details = better answers
Also: If you get a response it's polite to respond to it.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

I have no issue by adding qualifying statements to justify the use of "appears", such as "based on my visual observations" or "because......".

If it seems like I am dodging responsibility, that is exactly what I am doing by using the word "appears".
Why should I take on the legal responsibility of making a statement that I cannot backup?

If asked to remove the use of "appears" in my report, I would simply ask the client to remove whatever barriers caused me to use the word.
For example, remove the wall so I can see the full beam.



RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

Not everything can be fully known. 'Appears', as weak as it may sound, is valid as one of a range of qualifiers necessary to communicate the appropriate degree of certainty.

When I offer an engineering opinion, I will usually qualify its validity in terms of the scope of my general knowledge in the field and specific knowledge of the matter at hand. I do this as a matter of good communication and engineering ethics, and I would hope that every professional does the same.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

The first rule of both technical and legal writing is to eliminate ambiguity and as applied in this instance, alluding to something makes it so. If a report stated that a wall appeared to be load-bearing then either the wall is load-bearing or someone incorrectly judged it to be load-bearing. Ultimately the wall is or is not, and reports should either state that you observed evidence that they were load-bearing or could draw no such conclusion.

One of the biggest issues with engineers lacking technical/legal writing experience is that they overcomplicate reports attempting to make those reports "sound" better. Even minor details like inconsistent naming conventions can easily negate or reverse the meaning of a critical statement. Use one word or phrase for each company, product, or project, not five. "XYZ Corp" can be shortened to "XYZ" so long as you clearly state that upfront but dont also refer to them as "X," "the client," "customer," "the corporation," etc. Yes, doing so makes reports rather stale and repetitive but it also makes them crystal clear.

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

CWB1,

My first rule of both technical and legal writing is to avoid committing anything to paper that a lawyer can successfully challenge.

Which is why I treat 'non-mandatory appendices' as 'mandatory', and 'recommended practice' as 'required practice'

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

RE: Engineering "Legalese" and report writing semantics

NOTE. When I am sent photos and descriptors of an incident, I am usually asked for a technical opinion based on the evidence presented... tempered by my my experience. In this case I'll often use the term 'it appears...' when describing possible evidence, clues, etc. I usually follow-up by stating that an in-depth investigation into the issue may or may-not be warranted.

NOTE: IF something I'm seeing bothers or scares me, it's probably 'warranted'... experience is a cruel teacher.

Regards, Wil Taylor
o Trust - But Verify!
o We believe to be true what we prefer to be true. [Unknown]
o For those who believe, no proof is required; for those who cannot believe, no proof is possible. [variation,Stuart Chase]
o Unfortunately, in science what You 'believe' is irrelevant. ["Orion", Homebuiltairplanes.com forum]

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