In yet another bizarre and self-immolating move, ISO has released a “House Style” style guide for its standards that includes instructions on basic grammar taught in elementary schools.

ISO standards are typically drafted in English, and ISO maintains an “editorial” department that presumably speaks English, so it’s not clear why this is necessary. But the level of grade-school instruction in the House Style document points to a stunning lack of ability on the part of ISO’s teams of standards developers.

The guide, for example, explains when to use “a” or “an” in sentences, as well as “its” versus “it’s,” “affect” versus “effect,” and a host of other astonishingly basic grammar concepts.

ISO standards have suffered from a plague of content problems, likely because the “editorial” team changed dramatically over the past ten years. In prior decades, seasoned editors with a broad knowledge of standards development worked for ISO, ensuring that basic rules — such as ensuring “notes” do not contain requirements — were followed. In the 2010s, the editorial staff was largely replaced by much younger entry-level “proofreaders” without experience in ISO standards. The result has been a flood of standards, including ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, that no longer follow long-standing ISO rules on presentation.

And, in the mad dash to “Expedite” standards development, TMB and the TCs have gutted previous time allowances to ensure a standard undergoes rigorous editing before publication.

Worse, ISO has shifted much of the text creation away from subject matter experts within each standard’s Technical Committee, and handed control over to the Technical Management Board. Text issued by the TMB may not be edited by a TC, and is only voted on symbolically. The bulk of the TMB text work is done by non-elected persons, such as Dick Hortensius of Netherlands, whose native language is not English. The little editing that the TMB text — known as “Annex SL” — undergoes is also done by non-English speaking proofreaders.

In the 2015 version of ISO 9001 alone, readers were faced with a host of problems making the standard both unintelligible and un-auditable:

  • Clauses fail to define “what” do to, and instead instruct the reader to fill in the blanks (e.g., clauses 6.2.2, 7.4, 9.1.1)
  • Clauses include requirements in the notes (e.g., clauses 8.5.3 and 8.5.4)
  • Clauses include out-of-scope content not applicable to a quality management standard (e.g., clause 7.1.4’s references to a “non-discriminatory” and “emotionally protective” work environment)
  • Clauses are presented out of sequence (e.g., clauses 4.1 and 4.2)
  • The meanings of identical terms change from one clause to anotherĀ  (e.g., “monitoring and measurement” and “nonconformance“)
  • Different terms are used to reference the same thing (“monitoring and measurement” in 8.5 changes to “planned arrangements” in 8.6)
  • Redundant terms (e.g., clause 7.1.4’s references implying “heat” is different than “temperature“)
  • Inane phrasing (e.g., “organizational knowledge is knowledge specific to the organization.”)
  • Need to refer to the Annex to de-code “retain documented information” vs. “maintain documented information,” rather than use common words like “document” or “record

Without a functioning, seasoned editing function, no amount of basic grammar lessons will likely help ISO standards improve.


About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.