KANBrief 2/15

Standardized language in standards

"Whatever shall be, shall be." But even in standards? In principle it is set out in black and white how binding a provision is when it states that the user of a standard "shall", "can" or "should" do something. But how do standards committees decide which form of provision is appropriate? It is important that the choice be made carefully, so as not to create unintended room for interpretation and consequently to give rise to uncertainty among users of a standard.

Part 2, Annex H of the ISO/IEC Directives (ISO/IEC Directives, Part 2, 2011) sets out which forms of the verb are to be used in English and French for different forms of provisions in standards. The corresponding information for German can be found in Part 3 of the CEN/CENELEC Internal Regulations (Internal Regulations Part 3, 2011 (pdf)). A general overview can be found in DIN 820-2 Standardization – Part 2: Presentation of documents, which sets out the CEN/CENELEC Internal Regulations in all three languages in parallel. The requirements must be observed not only during the drafting of standards, but also in translations of them (refer also to the German and French tables).

In general, only one formulation is possible for each type of provision. Additional, synonymous expressions are listed, but may be used only in exceptional cases, when linguistic constraints prevent use of the main form.

When are the various verbal forms appropriate?

Standards are produced for different purposes. They are intended for example to describe the state of the art, support product requirements formulated in legislation, serve as a basis for contractual agreements, or permit compatibility. At the same time, they should be as user-friendly as possible and should state unambiguously what users of standards must do or refrain from doing in order to be able to assert that they are in compliance with the standard. It follows that verbal forms constituting a recommendation, such as "should (not)" or "it is (not) recommended" are inappropriate in standards. These forms should be used only in informative forms of documents such as guidance standards or Technical Reports.

Strictly speaking, the use in standards of informative annexes containing "provisions" in the form of recommendations is also not user-friendly: users can happily ignore them whilst still being in compliance with the standard. In the event of a claim however, judges and contractual partners could nevertheless adopt the view that, where relevant to the case concerned, this content was known and its observance required. Standards committees should therefore always decide clearly whether or not a requirement is necessary. If not, it may be much more constructive to dispense with it.

Sonja Miesner                   Corrado Mattiuzzo

miesner@kan.de         mattiuzzo@kan.de 




Verbal form

Equivalent in exceptional cases


Observance is binding; deviation is not permissible


is to
is required to
it is required that
has to
only ... is permitted
it is necessary

shall not

is not allowed/permitted/acceptable/permissible
is required to be not
is required that ... be not
is not to be


Recommendation of / against one of a number of possibilities


it is recommended that
ought to

should not

it is not recommended that


Permission for a certain course of action


is permitted
is allowed
is permissible

need not

it is not required that
no ... is required

Possibility and capability

Mental, physical or causal possibility /


be able to
there is a possibility of
it is possible to


be unable to
there is no possibility of
it is not possible to