For the love of all that is holy, stop writing “utilize”

(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 5.)

Last week, in a moment of grading-related frustration, I suggested on Twitter that there is never any good reason to use the word “utilize”.  As scientists, we love to use it – and I’ll have more to say about that below – but my claim is that in every writing situation, “use” is a better choice. It’s shorter, it’s simpler, it sounds less pretentious.

I thought this was a pretty trivial claim, so I was surprised to get pushback.  Maybe I’ll get some more once I’ve posted this.

Why the pushback?  Apparently, quite a few people* believe that use and utilize mean slightly different things.  That’s not an implausible claim: the English language is full of almost-synonyms that carry useful distinctions (consider run, dash, jog, and lope).  It’s not a correct claim, though.  Its incorrectness is obvious from the fact that multiple people explained to me how the meaning of utilize differs from the meaning of use – but they mostly disagreed with each other.  Here are some of the claimed distinctions:

  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.

I’d never heard any of these claims before (to me, use and utilize are just synonyms.)  The most popular suggestion was #1, but you may have noticed that #2 (the next most popular, also suggested by multiple people) is exactly opposite.  The others are something of a grab bag.  Finally, someone suggested consulting Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  Great idea – Fowler’s is a gold mine for fine points of usage like this!  But here’s the problem: two different editions of Fowler’s suggest two different meanings for utilize:

A. “to make good use of, especially of something that was not intended for the purpose, but will serve” – A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed, 1965, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers

B. “to make practical use of, to turn to account” – Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, 2004, revised by RW Burchfield

Meaning A is also popular meaning #1 from the first list, which might sound like support – but even in 1965, Fowler’s noted that “this distinction has disappeared beyond recall”.  There’s nothing unusual about this. There are plenty of words that have ambiguous sets of connotations, often different for different audiences.  Sometimes they’re ambiguous because they’re in the middle of a temporal change: a meaning is abandoned, or a new meaning displaces an old one after a period of semantic drift (like “moot point” or “beg the question”, each of which has almost finished losing its original meaning and gaining a new one).  These ambiguous words are good words to avoid. (Incidentally, what makes some technical terminology useful is that technical terms tend to have very precise meanings that change more slowly, if at all – ghosting somebody didn’t mean the same thing 50 years ago and probably won’t mean the same thing 50 years from now; but 2-5-bis(4-methylbenzylidene)cyclopentanone did and will. This property is what makes some jargon good jargon.)  If utilize did once have that connotation of use for an unintended purpose, it doesn’t any more.

So where does this leave us?  With a clear conclusion: you may think that utilize means one of the things on the list above – or perhaps, you may think it means something not yet captured by the list.  But if you do, you’re wrong.  A word doesn’t mean what a writer thinks it means; it means what readers think it means.  And readers don’t, it seems, agree on what distinction there is between use and utilize might mean, or whether there’s any distinction at all.  As a writer, you might use utilize intending to communicate sense #1, or sense #2, or any of senses #3 – #8; but you can’t rely on that communication being successful.

Now I’ll take one step more, and here’s where I’ll make myself unpopular.  I don’t really think utilize is common in our literature because people are trying to communicate its supposed connotations (although some may rationalize it that way after the fact).  I think the real reason we use utilize is because it sound science-y (and the simpler use doesn’t).  I think as undergraduate students and early-career writers, we’re exposed to the literature that’s gone before us, and we see turgid and tedious prose bulging with long words and complicated structures – so that’s what we write.  It’s no surprise that when I ask my undergraduate students to write their results “like a scientific paper”, they look to the literature for examples and write what they’ve been reading.  And here we are, trapped in a circular expectation: we write turgid and tedious prose because we want to sound like the literature, and our literature sounds like that because we keep writing it that way.  Utilize is one symptom of that highly communicable and devastating disease trying-to-sound-science-y-it is.  It’s really hard to shake the disease: I even find myself using utilize (and using the passive voice, and committing a legion of other sins) despite knowing better, because it’s so ingrained in my experience.  I try to edit them out, but please don’t run a search of my publications to see if I’ve been successful.  I know what you’ll find.  Leave me alone with my private regrets.

Bottom line: utilize doesn’t mean anything different from use; it just makes our literature ponderous and pretentious.  Let’s all stop.

© Stephen Heard  April 16, 2019

This post is based in part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my handbook for scientific writers.

More of my Writing Pet Peeves: There’s no Such Thing as an Unrelated Genus, Statistics and Significant DigitsFriends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”, and One Figure at a Time, Please.


*^I won’t identify here the people I’m disagreeing with, although I suppose if you’re really curious you could sift through the replies to the original tweet.

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “For the love of all that is holy, stop writing “utilize”

  1. Peter Apps

    “I think as undergraduate students and early-career writers, we’re exposed to the literature that’s gone before us, and we see turgid and tedious prose bulging with long words and complicated structures – so that’s what we write. ” Hallelujah ! And if we didn’t write like that our supervisors and reviewers took exception to our not toeing the party line.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Oooh, yes, that’s another one. I wonder if anyone wants to propose a distinction in meaning for “methods” vs. “methodology”? I’m tempted to try an argument that the latter is more general, covering an approach rather than a specific case…. but mostly I’m just trolling you.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Martin Brummell

        “Methods” vs “Methodology” is analogous (in my mind, at least) to “symbolism” vs “symbology”. As immortalized in the film The Boondock Saints, “symbology” is not the appropriate word to use when questioning a detective about the odd arrangement of objects at the scene of an apparent murder. “Methods” refers to the actions taken during some process; in the context of a scientific paper or experiment, the steps taken to test the hypothesis or collect data. “Methodology” is the study of methods, a kind of meta-analysis of how scientists do their work, and the conceptual space that extends beyond what has actually been done to include possible future actions in pursuit of knowledge.
        So when somebody asks about “the details of your methodology”, I reply with either “I skimmed around two dozen papers on similar topics, looking for common themes” or simply hard sarcasm (a la The Boondock Saints), depending on my mood.

        Back to utilize: yes, the main driver is the attempt to “sound science-y”. Personally, I think many junior ecologists have a kind of physics envy, in that many of the most important tools of ecology that students are exposed to very early on are very simple (rulers, pencils, water-resistant paper, binoculars, field guide books) in comparison to the abundantly-science-y tools of physics, astronomy, and chemistry. This leads to attempts to compensate by writing in a more opaque and excess-jargon-y way. I am deliberately ignoring ecology’s use of sophisticated statistical analysis, because those are usually not something a lab instructor hands directly to a student, while saying “go count that”.

        Like

        Reply
  2. Marco Mello

    I totally agree with your diagnosis (“trying-to-sound-science-y”). You notice symptoms of this disease also in the scientific communication made in other languages, including my mother tongue. People choose a hermetic and pedantic speech over a direct and efficient communication, just to sound like experts. If you consider the pillars of the Greek trivium, this science-y speech may be seen as a strategy, even unconscious, to increase your ethos (public image) in detriment of your logos (technical content) and pathos (passion for the topic). It’s also a way to show that you belong in the academic gang.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, good point about signaling belonging. I talk about this in class and seminars too. It’s something not just scientists do, of course – language can be used to signal belonging and status; it’s just too bad when (as you say) it decreases readability, pathos, ethos, and reach.

      Like

      Reply
  3. Fossil News: The Journal of Avocational Paleontology

    With you 100%. The ability to slap “-ize” (or other suffixes) at the end of words to make them sound professional or scienc-y is the main attraction of utilize, and no amount of whinging is going to change my mind. But the other point—that so much of science and technical writing is ridiculously baroque—is the heart of the matter. As a science editor, the grief I get for committing the sin of making people’s prose “clear and simple” is extraordinary, from which I’ve learned that some scientists deeply fear committing themselves to a single meaning.

    Like

    Reply
  4. Sam

    I often try to categorize people’s writing peeves according to Orwell’s categories of bad writing tropes (from “Politics and the English Languge”. This one is a Type II Peeve. “These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. […] The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations[…]”

    Also my favorite line from that essay, for those who haven’t had the curmudgeonly pleasure of reading it: “[Modern writing] consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

    Like

    Reply
  5. Manu Saunders

    I agree that many people use utilise unnecessarily. But I disagree that it should be banished from our writing! 🙂 I think both words have a place. One of the reasons I think the English language is beautiful is because it has so many synonyms to cover all the nuances of life – many languages don’t have this. I think it’s more constructive for people to learn how to use language effectively instead of following strict rules.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Totally agree with your general point – “learn how to use language effectively instead of following strict rules”. 100%! The obvious question, of course: when is using “utilize” more effective than using “use”?

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Manu Saunders

        To me, ‘use’ means direct consumption or operation, whereas ‘utilise’ can mean deployment, eg the nice example of teachers ‘can’t use’ vs ‘can’t utilise’ computers here: https://grammarcops.wordpress.com/tag/use-vs-utilize/

        It’s also more sensitive in some situations. for example, it sounds much better if I say ‘I utilised my student’s data skills to finish my experiment’ compared to ‘I used my student to get my experiment finished’!

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
        1. Fellow scientist

          ‘I utilised my student’s data skills to finish my experiment’ sounds awful to me.

          “Utilize”/”Utilise” is one of my first targets in improving my trainees’ writing. It’s up there with “framework” (rarely acceptable), most references to scientific trends, and a bazillion other things that would reveal my subfield. But it all boils down to my asking them for several years to remove tautologies and all words that do not propel the argument forward, and just *think* about the essence of what they want to say, and say it as simply as possible. Topic sentences come next. 😛

          Like

          Reply
  6. Joe Drake

    I was once seduced by “utilize”. I saw the error of my ways and now I only utilize “use”.

    But seriously. I do agree. Utilize is, as far as I can figure, unnecessary.

    Like

    Reply
  7. John

    This is a fun post! I somewhat disagree though. While I could see the argument for “utilize” being more pretentious, I usually end up using “use” more often, and I through in an occasional “utilize” mostly to avoid repetition. Variety is the spice of life, and I believe that an occasional “utilize” can add spice to an otherwise bland dish of just “use.”

    I also agree with Perlkonig, that the phrase “A word doesn’t mean what a writer thinks it means; it means what readers think it means.” should be printed on tshirts! Then I can wear it to annoy all my prescriptivist grammarian friends!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      By amusing coincidence, exactly as you posted this I was writing a paragraph for a future post discussing exactly this “synonym for variety” use-case! (Or should that be “utilization-case”?)

      Like

      Reply
  8. Pingback: (Limited) use-cases for “utilize” | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  9. jpschimel

    Absolutely. Hallelujah brother!

    Presumably any distinction between “use” and “utilize” evolved from a distinction in the sense of the French “user” and “utiliser.” My unconfident impression is that in French, utiliser has the more positive connotation and perhaps, a stronger sense of “for a specific purpose” whereas “user” may also imply misuse. But also, French is French and English is English. French has stronger and clearer preferences that particular words be used in particular ways. Translating rules from one language to another is dangerous: since you can’t split an infinitive in Latin (or French) you shouldn’t do it in English? Nope. “To boldly go forth” works for me. My driving rule on the distinction between use and utilize is simple and the same as yours: one takes more space and hence should be avoided. Any distinction in implication is idiosyncratic and not commonly accepted to be useful to overcome the extra letters. Mostly people use utilize because we think big words sound more “academic”–i.e. we like to show off our vocabulary and to avoid using common words. Only then do we try to come up with justifications for why it is the right choice.

    On your comment “some jargon is good jargon.” I think it is important to distinguish between necessary (and defined) technical terms which I do not classify as “jargon” and either unnecessary or undefined technical terms, which I do. If you define a term for your audience it isn’t “jargon” anymore. We can’t communicate without having words that mean things: book; dog; 2-5-bis(4-methylbenzylidene)cyclopentanone. But “jargon” is pejorative and so shouldn’t be a synonym for any new or specific technical term.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  10. Mark

    This is a great post. Now, please direct your ire to the over-used phrase “contextualize” that I am seeing way too much in current science writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  11. Pingback: The dangerous temptation of acronyms | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.