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.