(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.
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:
- 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.
- Utilize means to use something in a way that contributes to the original goal.
- Utilize means to make use of, which is different from using. (I’m not sure I understand this distinction.)
- Utilize means to use in a way that consumes what is used, or change it into something else (as in nutrient utilization).
- Utilize means to get a result effectively; use doesn’t carry the “effective” connotation.
- Utilize means to give a use to something that was previously useless (this may share the improvisation idea with #1).
- Utilize is neutral, while use has a negative connotation (as in “I feel used”).
- 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.
*^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.