Pedantry and its place

I recently reviewed a specification as part of a contract negotiation.  One PRINCE2 Product Description (PD) document was titled ‘PD9.2.7.1 Develop Corresspondence (sic) Items (Word Merges)’.  At the risk of sounding like a disaffected old school teacher, I cannot understand why business documents are delivered with spelling errors, particularly when Word’s dictionary highlights each error with a blindingly obvious squiggly little red line.  If it were up to me (which it is not) I would not be signing a $US6 million contract with a vendor who cannot fix spellos in their document titles. 

The point at issue is the business relevance of evident lack of attention to detail.  Two possibilities immediately spring to mind.  Firstly, is the error material to the intention of the document or any subsequent agreement?  Secondly, does the error suggest poor quality authoring or review processes, sloppy workmanship, or shallow capability that might suggest unacceptable outcomes or poor quality on far more important deliverables down the track? 

Clearly, the context in which the error appears is everything.  Complaining when a driver who has just dumped 6 cubic meters of woodchip on the driveway hurriedly writes out an invoice for ‘mulsh’ is annoyingly pedantic.  An error in a doctor’s script may have more serious consequences — patients expect and deserve accuracy in prescription content, syntax notwithstanding.  And anyway, a spello in hand-written content can always be put down to a slip of the pen, or the artistry of one-off nuances of the hand. 

History is littered with simple errors that had dire to amusing consequences.   The 1632 edition of the King James Bible omitted one ‘not’ on one page giving the seventh commandment a whole new meaning (‘Thou shalt commit adultery’).  This particular print-run went down in history as ‘The Wicked Bible’.

Something as trivial as a misplaced punctuation mark can cost millions.  In 2006, a Canadian cable television provider lost a court case in a contract dispute with a telephone company over the contracted period, which ‘shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.’  Though the cable television company believed that the first five years of the deal were secured, the inclusion of the second comma changed the meaning of the sentence, allowing the telco to terminate the contract at any time with one year’s notice. 

In contract law, all power resides with the pedant. 

Where money is concerned, no error is acceptable.  To make doubly sure, the Audit profession exists purely to find simple and complex errors that the systemic pedantry of accountancy may have missed.  Even so, and despite the checks and balances, errors occur and financial misrepresentations become larger than life.  The Enron scandal (October 2001) famously led to the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation and the dissolution of its auditor Arthur Andersen, formerly one of the five largest audit and accountancy partnerships in the world.  Enron and Andersen constituted the largest bankruptcy the biggest audit failure in American history at that time.  Investigations cited its complex business model, unethical practices, exploitation of accounting limitations to misrepresent earnings and systematic balance sheet distortions to overstate the corporation’s fiscal health.  In the Enron collapse, it appears that individual pedantry (and integrity) may have been swamped by complexity, scale and a corporate culture that allowed executives to be intoxicated by runaway wealth and fiscal success. 

Engineers deal in detail, but they work far away from the money-flow.  An engineer’s pedantry is anchored in the pursuit of mechanical, electronic or civil perfection.  But engineers are human, like the rest of us.  In Petroski’s catalogues of engineering failures, many are due to the smallest overlooked consideration.  In engineering’s software branch, inaccuracy as root cause is writ large, none more so than the Mars Climate Orbiter which crash-landed on Martian surface due to a metric-imperial mix-up on 23rd of September 1999.  It turns out that a Lockheed Martin (US-based) engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency’s team used the more conventional metric units for the control software, resulting in the craft’s thrusters underestimating power by a factor of 4.45 (the ratio between an imperial pound force and a metric newton).  Why this didn’t get found in test, a year before the craft left the ground, was not explained. 

Where errors are concerned, context is everything.  A spello could have either trivial or immense implications depending on where error sits.  So if the vendor’s specification has a spello in its title, but the error has no material effect on the services they will offer under the pending contract, pedantry is uncalled for.  Whether or not the spello should be interpreted as a harbinger of down-stream trouble is a value-judgement that should be based upon other considerations.  Pedantry is called for only where contextual factors have been fully considered. 

Effective pedantry is a game of judgement based on past experience.  A pedant can save a business millions or drive people crazy.  The most effective pedants are those people who can see the detail but can control their urge to bang the table.  Journeymen pedants must learn when to pack their dictionaries and quietly go home.

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