(Limited) use-cases for “utilize”

Warning: if you had your fill of ‘use’ vs. ‘utilize’ last week, I won’t blame you for clicking away. Here, this post is kind of fun and I promise it’s not about semantics.

Last week I let myself rant a little bit about one of my writing pet peeves, the overuse of utilize when use will do.  Going just slightly over the top, I wrote that “my claim is that in every writing situation, use is a better choice”. So, is “never use utilize” a categorical rule of writing?  Or is there a case, in particular circumstances, for using utilize in scientific writing?

Here, briefly, are four pro-utilize arguments.  Thanks to readers who pushed back (many of them quite politely).

1. Rhyme. OK, this is admittedly a bit trivial, but I was tickled a couple of tongue-in-cheek suggestions that utilize is better than use when you need something to rhyme. After all,

Sometimes I like to utilize
A word that rhymes with botanize
Or analyze, or euthanize.
Rhyming’s great, but otherwise
I prefer “use”.

Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.*  Let’s move on to more serious suggestions, shall we?

2. Rhythm. Sometimes a longer word (or a shorter one) improves the rhythm of a sentence or a passage. Writing that’s nothing but short words in short sentences gets tiresome after a while (with a distinct and malodorous tang of Hemingway).  In general, “use shorter, simpler words in scientific writing” is good advice; but like all advice, it shouldn’t be followed blindly 100% of the time.  I admit, with some pain, that I could probably imagine a sentence in which utilize would sound better than use.  I suspect it’s a rare one, though.

3. Avoiding repetition. Writing can also become tiresome with too many of the same few words. So, occasionally, might it be worth tossing in a utilize just for a little variety?  Well, maybe.  The problem is that reaching for the thesaurus can become an easy and superficial fix that yields atrocities like this:

“Lawes was third for the Jennifer Jones team that won women’s team gold in 2014. Morris was vice for Kevin Martin when they took the men’s team title in 2010.”**

For readers who don’t know curling, or sports: in the second sentence vs. the first, vice is a synonym for third; in a strange way the Jennifer Jones team is a synonym for Kevin Martin (in other words, the name of the “skip” can be substituted for the phrase “skip’s team”); took is of course a synonym for won, and title is a synonym for gold.  Ugh.

So, yes, you can throw in a synonym for variety; but it’s clumsy when overdone.  Even when not overdone, it puts an unnecessary cognitive load on the reader, who has to stop and ask whether your word switch implies a different connotation or not.  I think it’s usually worth looking for other revisions to achieve the same variety.

4. Meaning. It’s clear that readers don’t agree on what utilize means (as distinct from use, with at least 8 different and conflicting claims as to its meaning). But that hardly makes utilize unique in our language. Is it possible that using it to intend some particular connotation might be a good idea even if some readers won’t interpret it the way you want?  Consider the following simple mathematical model:***

You use “utilize” intending connotation X. The following happens:

A% of your readers (correctly) infer connotation X.
B% infer connotation Y instead (or Z, or On Beyond Zebra).
C% infer nothing at all, seeing “use” and “utilize” as synonyms.
D% find the writing stilted or pretentious.

Outcome A is positive, C is neutral, and B and D are negative.  So the most straightforward cost-benefit model would suggest that using utilize will be successful if A > (B+D).  Since D cannot be less than zero, a necessary but not sufficient condition is that A > B, and since the most common claim for a meaning of utilize seem to be “to use something in a novel or unintended way or for an improvised purpose” (#1 from last week’s post), no other claimed distinction can pass the test.  Whether distinction #1 does pass the test is an empirical claim that depends on the values of A, B, and D (in particular, A being large and B and D being small).  I’m dubious, but I recognize that good estimates of A, B, and D do not exist.**** Anybody need a thesis project in linguistics?


So: was “in every writing situation, use is a better choice” a bit hyperbolic?  Perhaps; but only a little bit, and I’m going to keep utilize on my list of pet peeves.  And I’ll see these (limited) use cases for utilize as yet more evidence that writing is both challenging and fascinating.

© Stephen Heard April 23, 2019

*^Although not sorry enough to have resisted the urge.  I love me some wretched doggerel.

**^From “Canada’s Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris capture gold in mixed doubles curling”, Canadian Press, Feb 13 2018)

***^Yes, I made a mathematical model to illustrate a point about semantics.  Yes, I realize that I may have reached peak nerd.

****^I also recognize that a more sophisticated model would include magnitudes of positive and negative effects.  In such a model, usage of utilize is successful if αA > (βB+δD), where α is the gained advantage from the correctly inferred connotation, β is the loss from reader confusion due to incorrect inference, and δ is the loss from reader disdain.  Unfortunately, quantifying α, β, and δ is much harder than estimating A, B, and D.

8 thoughts on “(Limited) use-cases for “utilize”

  1. Pingback: For the love of all that is holy, stop writing “utilize” | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Jesse

    I agree with the main point of your argument but I would caution against asking people to define words and then using those answers to draw conclusions about how they understand the word in context. We learn language as a whole and we learn words as they relate to one another, generally not by reading a dictionary. It is likely that no native speaker ever had to be taught the definition of the words “use” or “utilize.” We would have picked those words up on our own.

    With that in mind, The argument against “utilize” in point 4 above likely isn’t a sound or valid. For the first, people actually understand words in different ways than how they are able to define them. For the second, context matters. The same argument could be made for why you should never use the word “right.” However, the listener/reader will pick up different nuance of meaning given the context of the sentence.

    That said, get rid of the word “utilize.” It’s useless. Un-utilizable?

    Liked by 1 person


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