Use versus utilize

There are very few words I despise. Today’s post is about the one at the very top of that list. Here we go. This word is . . . utilize.

Utilize is one of those “smart” words people throw into cover letters, business reports, and research papers in the hopes of coming off as sounding super amazingly intelligent. And it’s true—sometimes this works. But it’s a cheap trick, and it’s easy for a trained eye to see through this ploy. What’s more, nine times out of ten, it’s the wrong word to use.

Let’s start off by looking at the definitions of these two words.

use: take, hold, or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing or achieving something; employ
Oxford English Dictionary

utilize: to make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account
Oxford English Dictionary

Is there a difference between these words?
Technically, yes. If you look at the definition of utilize, you’ll notice that it implies taking something and using it for an unintended purpose (convert to use). Meanwhile, the definition of use is more straight forward. It means employing any old thing to achieve your goal, whether or not you use that any old thing for its intended purpose. So if you are not actually creating an alternate use for something, utilize is the wrong word.

Here are two examples to illustrate this idea:

The witch uses her cauldron to brew her potions.

The witch utilizes her cauldron as a drum during the ceremony.

In the second example, the witch uses her cauldron for something other than its intended purpose. Cauldrons are cooking tools, not musical instruments. The witch converted the use of the cauldron to make her drum. Because of this, it’s okay to use utilize. But use works too.

But I really want to look smart! I have a prospective employer to impress!
As I mentioned before, cover letters are one of the most popular places for utilize to lurk. I’m a professional copy editor, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed utilize to plain old use because it’s simpler and less pretentious. But, if for some reason, you think your prospective employer might like a word with a little more flair, here are some examples of how to avoid utilize without using use.

ORIGINAL: I have utilized my excellent project management skills to consistently meet deadlines.

REVISED: I have applied my excellent project management skills to consistently meet deadlines.

ORIGINAL: My years of experience have allowed me to utilize the classic and current techniques of dog grooming.

REVISED: My years of experience have allowed me to hone the classic and current techniques of dog grooming.

ORIGINAL: I am able to utilize multiple programs simultaneously.

REVISED: I am able to manage multiple programs simultaneously.

There are plenty of other ways to sound like the super amazingly intelligent person I’m sure you are than to incorrectly use utilize. Besides, you never know if the person reading your cover letter is going to be a grammar stickler like me.

About Erin Roof

Editor for hire. Dictionary collector. Part-time cat lady. Word nerd blogging at grammarpartyblog.com
This entry was posted in copy editing, semantics, style issues and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Use versus utilize

  1. When I look over a cover letter that has “utilize” on it, I want to utilize it as toilet paper.

    Great post.

  2. I had a college professor some years back who said he would flunk anybody who used “utilized” in a paper. He said he was sick of reading that word, over and over, in place of good ole plain “use.” Thanks for the clarification on the differences in definition.

  3. I agree with you totally, though I prefer ‘utility belt’ to ‘usefulness belt’.

  4. I had a professor in my third or fourth year of college who would rant on about his pet peeve words, and “utilize” was at the top of the list. I viewed his unhealthy emphasis on things like this (along with bizarre behavior, such as reciting all of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” in class one day) as a sign of deeper issues.
    The “smart” words problem is often the result of pretentious use, or a misapplication of specialized language to a general situation. I like all of your suggestions for improving those resume sentences. And it’s safe to assume that most resume-readers are sticklers (even if they haven’t earned it): surveys consistently show that by the time you hit three errors, between 70% and 80% of hiring managers will put a resume aside.

  5. Bobby says:

    As a project manager and someone that has not grasped the finer aspects of this great english language, I would agree I have fallen prey to the incorrect use of utilize. I can’t help but think I helped this post become a reality……. Today, I’m happy to say this guy has reverted to the tried and true ‘use’. Praise the Lord, he has been saved.

  6. Archon's Den says:

    As Bobby says…”(S)omeone THAT has not grasped”
    Men are HANGED; ham is HUNG.

    Erin, would you please do a post about that vs who? My teachers insisted that who was to be used when referring to a person, while that was used for inanimate or non-human objects.

    This is the dog THAT shit on my lawn. Here is its owner, WHO didn’t pick it up.

    Don’t they teach this point anymore? All I hear and read is that, that, that!

    • Erin Roof says:

      I remember being taught that vs. who in school. But, I think that’s one of the finer points that is quick to be forgotten if English grammar, say, wasn’t your favorite class (something I can’t understand). That’s a great topic idea. I don’t know how many times I corrected that just yesterday.

    • “that” is perfectly fine for people, provided it is part of a defining relative clause. In fact, I tend to prefer it. You’re right in your example sentence that it should be “who,” because the clause describing the owner is non-defining.

      Sincerely, a guy that digs grammar.

  7. Great post. Love it. Puts me in mind of George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing:

    http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

    Rule #2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    Also reminds me of a great course I took years ago called Eight-Step Editing (I highly recommend it). One of the points was that, in our efforts to look smarter, we keep taking simple words and making them longer:

    Use … utilize … utilization … utilizable … utilizability … misutilizability

    And then we build unutilizable sentences to increase the utilization of our misutilized words instead of using simple words to build straightforward sentences.

  8. Jonathan Laing says:

    And to think my high school teachers used to correct the use of “use” as stupidty, without proffering suitable replacements other than “utilize.” All these years. I am ashamed I never actually referred to a dictionary, or at least a thesaurus. Thanks for your suggestions.

    • Erin Roof says:

      I had a teacher who told us never to use “said.” Instead we should use a flowery alternative. And . . . she was my high school journalism teacher. The very fist thing I learned in my college journalism classes was to always use “said” in articles. (Though, with creative writing, of course, this is different.) This just goes to show that teachers aren’t always right.

  9. Anonymous says:

    @ Boggleton Drive

    The gravatar shows a picture of a man with a cat. How can you be sure that I am the man? I may be his wife, or, like Bongo, I may be the cat. Nah! Ya got me!

  10. FS says:

    You deserve the Nobel Peace prize for this. That horrid word — utilize — is over-employed ( ;-) ) by people trying to sound…. smart? Efficient? Bureaucratic? Conformist?

    Honest to all that is holy in the world of good grammar and effective communication in writing or speaking: what good can possibly come from using utilize?

  11. Trudy Brunot says:

    Amen!

  12. Heather says:

    I think I may have just found a new favorite blog. :)

  13. Elia Sinaiko says:

    Do not utilize the word “utilize”! Use the word “use”!!

  14. Matt T. says:

    The ironic thing here is that, when the word “utilize” is employed, it is generally incorrect, yet still gets the point across. Thus, people (incorrectly) tend to “turn ‘utilize’ to use” in place of the word “use”, and are utilizing the word “utilize”.

    Mind=blown!

  15. Gayle says:

    Yes, just yes. So very tired of utilize when use is perfectly useful and not a bit pretentious. Thank you.

  16. Kristine says:

    I absolutely agree! I have bugged my husband about it so much that he searched online to prove me wrong. Guess what he found? Your blog! At least he can admit when he’s wrong – he forwarded it to me :)

  17. Pingback: Leveraging Misutilized Words: Utilize | Audrey C.

  18. Toni says:

    Boy am I glad to read this! I literally cringe every time I see utilize i documents and emails that I receive from my colleagues. I cannot understand why they just don’t use use. I found this blog because I was desperate to see if I was wrong. Not! Now that I know the proper use of the word, I will gently redirect them towards use.

  19. Steve H says:

    I work in nuclear science with a group that prepares regulatory documentation. We have to intentionally ‘dumb down’ our technical papers to ensure that the regulators understand the science. Despite this, I think that I am the only person in our department who doesn’t default to using ‘utilize’ in a futile attempt to make our technical documentation sound more technical. It irks me.

  20. Michael Maltenfort says:

    Great post, and very helpful. I saw one tiny problem:
    “Besides, you never know if the person reading your cover letter is going to be a grammar stickler like me.”
    Technically, “like I” is correct, though admittedly awkward. I would instead say:
    “Besides, you never know if the person reading your cover letter is going to be a grammar stickler like I am.”

  21. Rob Joselyn says:

    Totally agree with your comments regarding the use of ‘use’ vs ‘utilize’ but in your commentary, you hit another raw nerve; ‘alternate’ vs ‘alternative’. “So if you are not actually creating an alternate use for something, utilize is the wrong word.” Probably a misconception on my part but maybe something you may wish to consider?

    Rob Joselyn

  22. Bobbie Garber says:

    Next up–”prioritize.” Is this even a real word??

  23. Erin: So glad to know the word, “utilize” drives someone else crazy too! I hate to hear that word because it really is almost always used incorrectly. Anyway, what is wrong with the word, “use?”
    I “use” it every chance I get.

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