Image of a dictionary

It was a shock as a writer entering a business field, seeing how many people are just casually using the word “utilize.”  Writers are smugly assured that there is no good reason to use this word, except in very rare cases (want to make someone sound like an officious prig in dialogue? Utilize it is), and entering the real world and finding the word in everyday use, well like I said. A shock.

It’s especially shocking in a business field because people in business use this word all the time. I don’t even know why. I noticed it first in undergrad among my peers in business classes. I deleted it from group papers ruthlessly. I asked my group members if they were sure they wanted to use the word in presentations, and when they said yes, I asked, “why?”

I often got non-answers, but the most common real answer I got was that it sounded more “professional.”

So I decided that it’s time to fight back against the notion that “use” and “utilize” are interchangeable, and that “utilize” is ever the better choice.

First, some background.

Why Do We Have Use and Utilize?

Contrary to popular belief, use and utilize are not interchangeable. That’s why we have both words. The definition of use is as follows: v. to employ for some purpose; put into service; make use of, and n. the act of employing, using, or putting into service: or the state of being employed or used. That’s pretty basic, right? Most native speakers of English will understand this intuitively even if they cannot define “use” on the spot.

Utilize, however, is different. Merriam-Webster states that “utilize” suggests the discovery of a new, profitable, or practical use for something. This means to put an item to use in a way in which it was not originally intended. Utilizing a hammer as a doorstop, for example. The intended use of the hammer is as a tool to pound things; but it would work as a doorstop in a pinch, and using it thusly would be to assign it a new and novel use. To utilize it as something other than what it was intended.

When I explain this, my peers have whipped out their phones and presented me with an online dictionary entry stating that use and utilize are synonyms. 

I want to be clear; when we use the dictionary definition to prove the meaning of a word, we must understand that the dictionary is a descriptive (versus prescriptive) record of the use of language. This means that a word like “utilize,” which originally existed as an independent word with its own definition, has slowly been used as a synonym for “use,” and thus the dictionary records and describes its use as such. 

In terms of descriptive versus prescriptive analysis of language, both have their uses, and both are vital to understanding language. So I’m not saying that the dictionary is wrong, or that it isn’t useful; I’m saying that it will come to reflect and enshrine incorrect usage of a word as the popular use of that word changes. Which means that in popular usage, “utilize” and “use” are considered synonyms. A surprise to nobody.

But the prescriptive argument against utilize is that it is not a synonym for use, and that use has come to take the place of the original meaning of utilize: “I will use this hammer as a doorstop” being a perfectly understandable and correct statement.

But let’s look at the descriptive case. After all, both are important.

If They’re Synonyms, Why Not Use Utilize?

From a descriptive standpoint, we must accept that “use” and “utilize” are synonyms in current use of English. So if they’re synonyms, and can be used interchangeably, that means that using utilize must be okay, right?

Not so fast.

The reason that we still should not use “utilize,” even though it is synonymous with “use,” is that the word itself is bad. It made sense to have the word “utilize” when it retained its own identity and definition separate from the word use, but now that the two words are used synonymously, use is always the better choice.

Utilize is a word that draws attention to itself, simply by virtue of its three syllable length. However, except for cases (like this post) in which “utilize” is itself the subject of discussion, it should never be the star of the show. It should be the supporting player, below the subject in both importance and stature. “Use” accomplishes this. “Utilize” does not.

Utilize actually detracts from what you’re saying. It hogs the spotlight, actually making your speech, presentation, or paper weaker and less compelling.

But does it make you sound more professional?

One of the main principles of good business writing is to keep things clear and concise; to minimize jargon and “fancy” words. The Harvard Business Review backs me up on this. “Use” is a simpler and clearer word than its misbegotten cousin “utilize” in every application. “Use” fades into the background, allowing the main point of your writing to shine through. It makes your writing easier to read (and easier to scan, for that matter), tighter, and more compelling. This is vital for all of the four main types of business writing: instructional, informational, persuasive, and transactional.

There is no case in which you should be using “utilize” in place of “use,” in your writing or even in your speaking. It does not make you sound smarter, it does not make you sound more professional, it does not strengthen your writing (the opposite, in fact), and it does not make you more persuasive or compelling.

Next time you’re doing an edit on a memo, an email, a document, or a piece of copy, remove all instances of utilize and replace them with use. It will strengthen your writing.

 

A book titled English Grammar on a table

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I care deeply about spelling and grammar. I’ve tried to tone it down in casual situations, because criticizing spelling and grammar can be ableist and honestly causes you to miss the point of whatever the other person is saying. So in my quest to be a better person, I’ve made a huge effort to keep my grammar criticisms to myself.

But what about in my profession?

I’m a content creator and SEO specialist. So I was wondering, what impact does poor grammar have on my job?

So I did a little internet sleuthing, and found this study conducted by Website Planet.

Their results were interesting.

Bad Spelling and Grammar on the SERP

So it’s important to note that the Website Planet study only tested ads, and not organic results. Their test showed that the ads with spelling and grammar errors performed up to 70% worse than the clean ad in terms of click-through rate (CTR). Interestingly, for searchers in the US, the spelling error performed worse than the grammar error.

Google doesn’t penalize poor spelling or grammar. Their focus on the user experience means that if the content performs well, it will rank better and/or cost less per ad. So this tells us there’s a user bias against poor spelling and grammar (Bing prioritizes error-free content, but this study was performed on Google, so that’s what we’re going to look at).

We know that copy quality matters. If it didn’t, nobody would pay me for my work. Grammar and spelling are a part of that quality, because on the internet, readability is a part of content quality. People who are on the internet aren’t going to waste time on content that’s difficult to read, and badly written copy erodes your credibility with the audience, causing you to appear less expert in your subject matter. It’s easier to return to the SERP (search engine results page) and find a more authoritative site than it is to crawl your way through badly written copy.

Poor grammar impedes readability. This is what grammar is; a system designed to make language consistent and readable. Some errors, like extra commas, slow the reader down directly by causing the reader to pause. Interestingly, readers pause briefly on a comma, longer on a semi-colon, and the longest on a period, so commas aren’t the only error that directly cause this pause. In addition, poor grammar causes readers to pause and reorient themselves so that they can understand the sentence.

So on the SERP, bad grammar serves as a signal to your readers to not click, which is the opposite of what you want them to do.

Bad Spelling and Grammar on the Landing Page

The Website Planet study also tested a landing page associated with the ads; one version that was clean and one version containing errors. Their results showed that typos on the landing page increased bounce rate by an astounding 85% in comparison to the clean landing page. In addition, the typos reduced time on page by 8%.

There’s a lot of junk on the internet, and people are cautious, especially when buying things. They’re less likely to trust someone who’s selling something and uses poor grammar, because they see it as more likely to be a scam. People are careful about where they type in their credit card information, and well they should be! 

So, especially if you’re an e-commerce site, you want your content to look as credible as possible, which means that you need to make sure that your spelling and grammar is up to snuff.

What it Means

This is important because all of these performance factors impact both organic ranking and thus the cost of your Google ads. Google’s ranking system focuses on user experience when they rank, and the ranking factors are selected to reflect that. That means that while Google may not penalize poor grammar directly, metrics like CTR, time on page, and bounce rate function as signals of a poor user experience, which results in the page ranking lower. Ranking lower results in higher costs for your Google ads.

So not only is there a direct cost in terms of your advertising spend (you’re either spending more for the same impact, or the same amount for more impact), but there’s an indirect cost in terms of potential sales lost.

By the way, while the Website Planet focused on ads, many SEO and marketing agencies agree that spelling and grammar have a negative impact on organic rankings as well.

While there is value in ranking for common misspellings of relevant keywords, I suspect that the damage that having the misspellings in your copy does outweighs the benefits.

The point is, you have to have someone skilled at the written word write your copy and do your SEO work, or all that labor will be in vain. When we talk about the importance of quality content in SEO, spelling and grammar are an essential part of that quality.

Is This Ableist?

Yes, it absolutely is. Are there people with disabilities like dyslexia and others that might have something worthwhile on the internet? There sure are. One of the things we love about the internet is that it democratizes media, allowing anyone to publish what they want, sometimes for free. But the internet is only as democratized as the people that use it, and that means that the internet is shaped by all of our biases.

This is also a problem for people whose first language isn’t English (potentially racist), and people who haven’t had the same educational opportunities that I’ve had. I lived in pretty wealthy neighborhoods growing up, so that means I had access to good (mostly white, that’s not a coincidence) schools as a kid. I attended a private school overseas for part of high school, and went on to higher education, studying writing as my minor and going on to graduate school. So if I’m being honest, my pickiness about grammar and spelling is a demonstration of racial privilege, economic privilege, and literacy privilege.

This is aside from my experience with business writing (which follows the same grammatical rules as other kinds of writing, but really is its own discipline) and whether you think of grammar rules as being descriptive or prescriptive. Both of those topics, however, deserve their own blog posts.

In the meantime, I’m hoping I can focus all my grammar and spelling nitpickiness on my professional life, and leave it there where it belongs.

 

Tony Hsieh in 2009

Wow, I’m having a lot of feelings about the death of Tony Hsieh, retired CEO of Zappos.

A lot of my friends would think it’s silly and pretty bougie of me to mourn the loss of a retired CEO, but Hsieh was a management hero of mine, and I don’t think we’ll see another one like him in my lifetime, or maybe ever. 46 is a very young age to die, and as a person in their forties, it’s also a stark reminder of my own mortality. So I’m going to take a few moments to remember what I knew about Hsieh, and what I admired about him.

He Was an Innovator

Tony Hsieh was a bold visionary, and he wasn’t afraid to try something new. This is one of his qualities that I have most wanted to emulate, but remains the furthest from my grasp. It’s hard to try something new, and to accept that in innovation, even a failure is a type of success. It is a milestone on the road to your goal; it is a part of the process of elimination. It was the willingness to try something new that made Zappos into a success; after all, buying shoes online felt, at the time, risky to customers. Not being able to try shoes on before making a purchase was a new kind of shopping. But Hsieh implemented ways to make customers feel more comfortable taking that risk, making that purchase, knowing that the returns process and customer service experience would be as painless as possible.

He instituted holacracy at Zappos, which at the time was the largest company to flatten its hierarchy to that extent. It had its problems, and the company later instituted more hierarchy, but it’s an incredible thing to try such a risky (there are benefits and risks to implementing flattened hierarchies) management structure at a large firm. Large firms are inherently less agile, so that switch must have been messy and difficult. I’m sure he had a lot of non-believers, in fact many people left Zappos as a direct result of the holacracy move. But to try, to do, and to fail and try again, that’s a beautiful thing that I wish I was more capable of.

He Understood the Value of Joy

Employee happiness was a big part of growing Zappos from its humble beginnings as shoesite.com. This was a revolutionary idea in the 2000s and early 2010s, even though it’s now commonplace for companies to at least pay lip service to valuing employee well-being. He dedicated himself to making Zappos a happy place to work, to the point that he offered new hires a $2,000 payout if they thought the job was not working out. This way, he gently weeded out those who would not thrive in that office culture.

Hsieh understood that happy employees, even when they spent time socializing on the clock, meant more productive employees and happier customers. As someone who spent ten years working in customer service call centers, their reputation for being efficiency focused is well earned. But this wasn’t Hsieh’s focus in customer service. His primary metrics for customer service performance had more to do with customer satisfaction than with cost efficiency. I can tell you from experience that a drive for call center efficiency is directly at odds with the goal of satisfying customers. I can tell you from experience that watching my call time climb distracted me from my real purpose on the phone; helping people. I can tell you from experience that miserable employees give poor service.

Were there downsides to the culture of happiness? Absolutely. But he understood that happiness had value in the workplace, and that’s important. His work at Zappos helped to shape the focus on employee happiness that companies now pay lip service to at every opportunity. Zappos appeared on Fortune’s list of best places to work several times as a result of Hsieh’s dedication to happiness.

He Understood Company Culture

The first thing I learned from Tony Hsieh was that you couldn’t train culture; you had to hire for it. And he did this over and over again throughout his tenure as CEO at Zappos. During the holacracy experiment, he offered several months severance to those who didn’t want to be in a workplace without job titles. I think this piece of learning is key for me; because we live in a capitalist system in which we must have jobs to live, anyone will adopt a company culture on the outside. Finding people that naturally vibe with the culture that you want to create is challenging, but it’s worth it in the long run. These people will thrive at your company, reaching higher levels of productivity and self-management.

Company culture is a thing that a lot of large companies talk about, but which few understand. Company culture percolates from the top down; if your managers don’t feel the company culture, they won’t hire for it and they won’t encourage it. Company culture is vital for both management and worker to understand; both must be able to determine what is and is not positive behavior in the workplace, because engaging in positive behavior boosts the morale of others. The definition of positive behavior, with the exception of some universals, varies from company to company and is communicated through company culture.

Workers thrive in the right culture, they will be more productive, more social with their teams, and more likely to help one another out and cross-work. Teams become more cohesive, employees become more engaged. It becomes easier to communicate team and company goals because everyone is using the same language.

He Chased Vision, Not Money

Well, he said he did, anyway. One can never know what’s in a man’s heart, and I have a hard time believing that someone could become that wealthy without chasing the money a little bit. But the bottom line was not his immediate focus, or he would not have engaged in such risky behavior as CEO.

Innovation is risky. This is why it’s easy to talk about but difficult to do; innovative failures can be expensive, and innovative failures in marketing or customer service have a very direct impact on the bottom line through sales revenue. But Hsieh showed us that the rewards that can be reaped through innovative success can be huge, and you absolutely do not have innovative success without innovative failure.

This is why large companies often espouse modern, innovative values, but are managed through philosophies that are fifty to a hundred years old. They are dedicated to pleasing shareholders, so they dare not risk the bottom line.

This is why the things I learned from Tony Hsieh pushed me toward small businesses in my career path. There’s more creativity there, there’s more room to grow, to try new things, and to remain on the cutting edge of whatever your career is. That’s the creative side of my work, and it’s what I love.

Goodbye, Tony Hsieh. You left your mark.