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.

Erin Servais has edited hundreds of books and has replaced thousands of “utilizes” in her day. Learn how to hire her to edit your next book today: