January, 2010

Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

The Word: A Half Dozen This Month


Once again, The Word invites you to travel into the dark realm of terms that are often misused or misunderstood in home inspection reports. The Word hopes you will find this trip informative and maybe a little entertaining.

Today, let’s thumb through the dictionary and discuss some terms that could cause trouble if your report falls into the hands of the dark creatures who make their living parsing documents. It’s good practice to keep the dark creatures at bay by giving them as little ammunition as possible.

Before we thumb through the dictionary, let’s discuss dictionaries themselves. Contrary to popular belief (including The Word’s before his resident librarian set him straight), all dictionaries are not created equal. The only prescriptive dictionary of American English is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Other dictionaries may provide correct spelling and some definitions, but no other dictionary provides a word’s meaning and usage with the same authority as The American Heritage Dictionary. This is particularly true for online dictionaries and the dictionary from a certain ubiquitous software company. Keep the dark creatures at bay by getting the right dictionary and by using it.

Begin keeping the dark creatures at bay by avoiding use of the word “code,” as in building code. The only people authorized to interpret and apply building code provisions are representatives of a government building official. No matter how obvious a “code violation” may appear, you should not report it as such. There is a chance that you are wrong about the alleged “code violation.” Even if you are right, calling a code violation is beyond the scope of your authority. Keep the dark creatures at bay by remaining within the scope of your authority and competence.

A term frequently misused is “missing,” as in: “The chimney flashing is missing.” Missing is a verb. Recalling basic grammar, the part of speech that describes a noun (flashing) is the adjective. A better term in this context is the adjective “absent,” meaning not present. Keep the dark creatures at bay by using the correct part of speech.

Two frequently misused terms are “crack” and “cinder block,” as in: “There are cracks in the cinder blocks.” Cinder block refers to a specific type of concrete block made with concrete and ashes from burned coal called cinders. Cinder blocks are rare in modern construction and have been so for many years. A better term in this context is “concrete block.”

If the concrete blocks are cracked, then using “crack” in this context is correct because you have accurately identified the cracked component. If, however, the cracks are only in the mortar, then the statement is incorrect because you have not accurately identified the component. Mortar and concrete blocks are two different components and cracks in the mortar can mean something different from cracks in the concrete blocks. Keep the dark creatures at bay by accurately identifying the component and the problem.

Another example of inaccurate component identification and poor word usage is: “The dishwasher is void of an air gap.” Unless you dismantle the dishwasher, you don’t know if an air gap device is inside. The inspector in this case was actually referencing the dishwasher drain hose. The term “void” usually refers to the condition of being without contents, such as the void of space. The better term than void in this case is “absent,” or you could describe the condition by saying that the dishwasher drain hose does not contain an air gap.

A term that can be dangerous in your inspection reports is “good,” as in: “The furnace is in good condition.” Meanings of good in this context include superior to the average and of high quality. A home inspection is visual. All you can determine by visual inspection and by testing using normal operating controls is the condition and functionality of the visible parts of a component at the time of the inspection. You cannot know what you cannot see or test, so you cannot know if the entire component is in “good” condition. A better sentence in this context is: “The furnace appears to be in acceptable condition at the time of the inspection.” In this sentence, the term “appears” acknowledges the visual nature of your inspection. The term “acceptable” means that the furnace adequately performed its required function. Keep the dark creatures at bay by avoiding statements that you cannot defend.

A mangling of the language occasionally seen in reports is using warranty as a verb. Warranty is a noun generally referring to a promise from a seller to a buyer. Warrant is the verb describing the act of providing a warranty. Keep the dark creatures at bay by using the correct word.

The Word would like to thank David Birenbaum, St. Louis ASHI Chapter president, for the inspiration for this topic. This is another example of a poorly worded sentence. If The Word would like to thank David, why not do so? The better sentence is: “The Word thanks David Birenbaum, St. Louis ASHI Chapter president, for the inspiration for this topic.” Keep the dark creatures at bay by using present tense and active-voice verbs whenever possible and appropriate.

Memo to the lexicographic Gods and other authorities: The Word does not reside on Mt. Olympus (just at its base) and welcomes other viewpoints. Please don’t cite definitions or usages from products by the ubiquitous software company. The Word will hear about it for days from his resident librarian. Send your lightning bolts or e-mails to inspectorbruce@cox.net.

The Word thanks Mark Whelan for catching an error in the November 2009 column about fireblocking. At the top of the third column on Page 23, I used firestop instead of fireblock, as I had previously recommended.

Unless specifically identified as ASHI policy, articles and columns published in the ASHI Reporter represent the opinion of the author, not of ASHI. This includes The Word.