Thursday, April 4, 2013

Grammar ABCs: U is for Use

I have several word pet peeves. One is “snuck”, which I have written about previously. Another is 9 a.m. in the morning. (Think about it! As opposed to 9 a.m. in the evening?)

My word of the month is “Utilize”. Utilize is one of those fluffed up, pretentious, supposedly intellectual “dollar” words that people use when they want to sound smart. Many times we see it in PR copy: If you utilize this product, you will be better/stronger/smarter/richer etc. But I often see it in plain old prose: He utilized the rake to clean up the yard. Aw, come on.

There is a perfectly acceptable, three-letter word you can “use” instead. That’s it—USE. He used the rake to clean the yard. If you use this product you will___. Simple. Utilitarian. Easy. And do NOT use the even fluffier, more pretentious verb form: “utilization.” Ugh.

Here are the definitions of the 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. It implies taking something and using it for an intended purpose (convert to use).

“Utilize” is a legitimate word, borrowed from French, and has specific uses, usually in scientific writing. It is used in contexts in which a strategy is put to practical advantage or a chemical or nutrient is being taken up and used effectively.” For example, according to the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, you might hear “utilize” properly used in a sentence such as If a diet contains too much phosphorus, calcium is not utilized efficiently.

But if you are a regular person writing a regular sentence for advertising copy or a novel, you should probably just stick with the word “use.”

How do you feel about use/utilize?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. i like both words--but you make some interesting points!!!

  2. I agree that selecting the simpler word is often the best choice. While I have not seen usage as awkward as your example of utilizing the rake, I have stumbled across some like it, and we really should avoid making our readers stumble. (smile)

  3. Thank you for pointing out how to use "utilize" correctly. : )

  4. Would the utilization of this venue for the expression of professional amour for a fellow grammarian be inappropriate? Just askin'.

    Agreed. Using use is usually useful.
    Cheers, and thanks for the fun post!

  5. Always useful to be reminded of this, Heidi. I'd edit both out and say "She raked the yard," lol. In that sentence I'd only include the word if the usage was unusual: "She used the toothbrush to clean the yard."

  6. Okay, here's one for the brainiacs at BRP to help me with: proactive ... where the heck did that come from? I always thought you were either active or reactive ... oh, and I did mean you ... not me ... I'm napping.

  7. If use must be used multiple times in a sentence or short paragraph, perhaps the use of utilize would be beneficial to avoid overuse. On the other hand, as Kathryn suggested, rework the sentence(s) to avoid both.

    Great fun, Heidi! I love posts like this that remind me to watch my word use. :-)

  8. I always like simple and straightforward. Just use the clearest language you can. Don't try to impress me because you won't. I'm reading a memoir that starts far too many sentences with the word "evidently" and wonder what that is all about. Sigh.

  9. Count me among the 'simple is better.' And since I write deep POV, I have to make sure whatever words my characters are using are theirs, not mine.

    Terry's Place

  10. Okay. I didn't comment on the last time you talked about 'snuck' but it is a Canadianism. We don't say leaped, dived or fishes either.

    But language is all about change and adapting. Definitions change. Word usage changes. Obviously some words work better than others. Jack and Jill will never 'retrieve' a pail of water. But I think writers and editors should hesitate to add any word to a list of pet peeves.

    It's like making 'octopi' a pet peeve. Who cares if it isn't right? It's commonly used. Or 'brontosaurus' -- the best known dinosaur that never existed.

  11. Thanks to all of you for your comments. It's always fun and "useful" to get others' opinions.Simple is best, in my opinion.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook