This is the hill I choose to die on: English writers should never use the word “utilize.”
Let me state up front that I am being a bit hyperbolic. This is not to say I am wrong, only that I recognize that I am being an absolutist on this matter. My goal is not just to convince you of my point—of course, I hope to do that too—but to make you consider what words you choose and why.
I will very briefly criticize “utilize” on aural and oral grounds. Say the word out loud. Say it quickly and slowly and loudly and softly. Ask someone else to do the same, for you. That is the whole of my aesthetic argument against the word—if you do not understand it, I will not try to convince you on those grounds.
In brief, my argument is as follows: writers choose “utilize” either because they want to sound more sophisticated or because they believe “utilize” has a shade of meaning different from “use.” The first reason is always a bad one: writing is meant to communicate, not to be clever. The second reason is also a bad one: “utilize” has no shade of meaning beyond “use.” There is no other reason to choose “utilize” in prose (perhaps one might need to rhyme in a poem, but even then…). Thus, a writer should never use “utilize.”
I think many writers reach for “utilize” when they fear that “use” sounds too plain. I rarely agree with Stephen King, but he was right on in On Writing: bad writing springs from fear. Writers fear readers. Really, writers fear what readers think. So, writers choose words that they think will make readers think well of them.
My problem with this (and I seek to make it your problem, too, bright reader) is that writing is not about proving the writer is clever. Writing is about communication. Writing is about moving an idea from one brain to another—for instance, the idea that writers should always use “use” and never use “utilize.” King gets it right again: writing is an act of telepathy. Writing may often be more than this, but it is never less.
“But wait,” you say, bright reader. “If writing is about communication, then choosing ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’ makes sense! Communication requires precision, after all.”
I agree: communication does require precision. No doubt some writers choose “utilize” because they believe it means something more precise than “use.” However, this is simply not true. Some argue that because “utilize” means “to turn to practical use” (emphasis added), it means to use something in a way not originally intended (emphasis also added); thus, one uses a pencil to sketch, but utilizes a pencil as a weapon.
In response, look at the Merriam-Webster definition of “utilize” here:
Merriam-Webster’s primary definition for “utilize” is “to make use of.” Yes, it goes on to include turning something to practical use or account, as in the quote from Frost. But the primary definition is “to make use of” a thing. What is the distinction between “using” something and “turning something to practical use or account”? The quote from Frost is no less precise in meaning if rewritten as “I’m a great person for using waste power.” In fact, even more precise would be either “reusing” or “recycling.”
One Merriam-Webster author argues that “utilize” somehow “suggests the discovery of a new, profitable, or practical use for something” (emphasis added). The MW author offers the following examples:
Investigators desperate to solve a notorious cold case played the role of consumers interested in their family tree as they used an open-source genealogy website to identify the suspected Golden State Killer, prompting questions about whether increasingly popular DNA analysis sites should be utilized for more than just digging into one’s heritage.
— Trisha Thadani, The San Francisco Chronicle, 28 Apr. 2018
According to a 2014 study published in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Current Issues journal, graduates who find themselves working in jobs that don’t utilize their degrees in their 20s will land jobs more in line with their degree by their 30s.
— Prachi Gupta, Cosmopolitan, 2 Mar. 2016
Individual insurance companies should begin testing new ways of utilizing blockchain with internal processes to gain learning to leverage as the technology matures.
— Bernard Marr, Forbes, 31 Oct. 2017
They found time allotment has remained remarkably stable over 15 years. But for many patrons, the way they utilize those precious seconds with Picasso has shifted significantly, with more than one-third snapping shots of themselves in front of the work of art.(emphasis added)
— Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, 2 Mar. 2016
The MW author notes that “[u]se could of course be substituted for utilize in any of these examples, but the implication of a deliberate decision or effort to employ something for a practical purpose would be lost.” This is shifting the goalposts. The MW author first stated that “utilize” suggests a new or profitable use—the word does seem to present itself, doesn’t it?—not just a “practical” one. If “to utilize” means only “to make practical use of” then I am afraid I see no shade of meaning more precise than “to use,” which MW defines as “to put into action or service.”
Further, these sentences lose nothing if we substitute “use” for “utilize.” Consider:
In the first, third, and fourth examples, the other parts of the sentence, not the verb “utilize,” suggest the new use. Using “use” would not prevent readers from understanding that DNA analysis sites are not typically used in criminal investigations, that insurance companies can profit from creative uses of blockchain (a novel technology for which there is not a settled “use”), or that patrons taking selfies with Picasso paintings is a new use of time spent in art museums.
The second example does not help the “utilize” crowd, either. The quote states that grads who do not utilize their degrees in their 20s will find jobs “more in line” with their degrees in their 30s. Remember: the MW author claims that the definition “to put to practical use” somehow translates to “to put to a new or profitable use.” Context will not allow for “utilize” to mean “a new use”—grads move from jobs where they are “not utilizing” their degrees to jobs “more in line” with their degrees; in other words, a less novel use of their degree. Here, utilize must mean “to put to profitable use.” But this is clear from the context. Substitute “use” for “utilize” and the reader can still understand: grads who do not use their degrees in the jobs they work in their 20s likely will use their degrees in the jobs they work in their 30s.
Now, even further complicating the argument that “utilize” means something different (and, thus, more precise) than “use” is the fact that no one can agree on what utilize means. For example, here is one list of potential distinctions for “utilize” that advocates offer:
1. Utilize means to use something in a novel or unintended way or for an improvised purpose, rather than the usually intended way or for the usually intended purpose.
2. Utilize means to use something in a way that contributes to the original goal.
3. Utilize means to make use of, which is different from using. (I’m not sure I understand this distinction.)
4. Utilize means to use in a way that consumes what is used, or change it into something else (as in nutrient utilization).
5. Utilize means to get a result effectively; use doesn’t carry the “effective” connotation.
6. Utilize means to give a use to something that was previously useless (this may share the improvisation idea with #1).
7. Utilize is neutral, while use has a negative connotation (as in “I feel used”).
8. Utilize means to use something in a tactical or technical manner for advantage.— Stephen Heard, Scientist Sees Squirrel
I am sure that more distinctions exist, but the point is already clear: if you use “utilize,” you are opening your readers to more confusion, not more understanding. Perhaps you, bright reader, think about writing like Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” I used to believe this, but I have come to see that the opposite is true. As Stephen Heard says in his post, “[a] word doesn’t mean what a writer thinks it means; it means what a reader thinks it means.”
No, this is not some sort of hopeless postmodernism, where authorial intent does not matter. It is merely recognizing that you, bright reader (and, thus, bright writer) must choose your words so that your reader will understand what you use them to mean. As Strunk and White said, the reader is in trouble; throw the poor soul a rope. Here, the choice is easy, and the rope is light: use “use.”
I have belabored this point long enough. If you have a defense for the word “utilize”—perhaps your industry does have a special shade of meaning and treats “utilize” as a term of art—please feel free to leave it in the comments. Perhaps I am wrong; let’s argue about it over a drink. But, as I said, I want to make you think about which words you choose and why — if I have done that, I am content.