Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wood Writing Guide - Use vs. Utilize

The desire to craft and read decent prose (or similarly utter and hear good words) confronts distressing trends of text-speak and over-writing. Text-speak, the abandonment of correctness in place of convenience, is a topic I'll address some other time. But over-writing deserves some attention now. One example of over-writing? Folks who use the word "utilize" when they mean "use."

Read enough corporate or academic memos (there's still a difference between the two, no matter how increasingly small) and you will encounter the words "use" and "utilize" employed interchangeably. And if the author is attempting to establish her or his credibility, you can guess what word will appear more often: "utilize."

Why? Perhaps "utilize," with its three syllables, sounds more impressive than "use" with its mere one syllable. And we all want our words to bolster our credibility, right? However, if your goal is precision rather than puffery, you might want to know the difference between "use" and "utilize."

• "Use" refers to the typical employment of something or someone.

• "Utilize" refers to a novel employment of something or someone.


"I used my computer to write this blog."

"I utilized my computer as a paperweight."

See? The "use" is expected. The "utilization" is unexpected.

In reading other blog posts that tackle this topic, I encountered a rebuke to another author's call to distinguish between "use" and "utilize." The respondent said something like this: "Don't get so caught up with rules, dude! Writing is about sharing, not about regulation." Fair enough. No one wants to kill language with pointless rules. But I still advocate for precision in language. To that end, I invite you to consider the subtle variances between commonly conflated words. You might as well start with "use" and "utilize."

Know of any others? Please post a comment.

1 comment:

John said...

This has become so ubiquitous in everyday business use that I think most people have forgotten there is a small, but important difference between the two words. Every meeting and email I get seems to replace "use" with "utilize" and woe to the writer who points out the misuse!

Many people also have a mistaken belief that it makes them sound more intelligent, gives more weight to what they are saying, or simply "sounds better" to use the bigger, less correct "utilize" in place of "use."

As to your last comment, I frequently see misuse and abuse of "person," "persons," "people," and "peoples."