To Use or Utilize!

Let’s just make this easy: don’t use the word “utilize.” “Use” is almost always the better choice. It’s really that simple. 

I understand why you like “utilize.” It’s got a nice ring to it. It sounds professional. It gives your copy an air of authority. But if it comes across my editing desk, I’ll probably change it (there are exceptions I’m willing to allow, and I’ll get to those in a minute).

I know, I know, you’re thinking I’m that guy on the block who yells at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn. And maybe editors can be a bit curmudgeonly—it comes with the territory when you’re job is to enforce the rules. I don’t like to think of myself as a curmudgeon (I don’t yell at the neighbor kids, and come on, I have a soul patch!). I’m willing to embrace the new when it comes to language. I really don’t mind when someone uses “their” to avoid gender bias (Everybody take their seat). And as I like to point out when my father-in-law bemoans the use of “awesome” (Moses parting the Red Sea, he likes to say, was awesome, that cheeseburger was not) is that language evolves. Word meanings change over time. If none of this happened, we’d be still be speaking Old English. So at some point in the future, this may be a moot point. Everyone will be utilizing “utilize” and editors will be swept under the wave of new usage and will be reduced to eye rolling when we come across it in copy.

So why even write about it? Well, because “use” is still a better choice. There are those who feel very strongly that “utilize” makes the writer sound pompous, and most editors will likely change it anyway. Also, the grammar nerds in your target audience will flinch when they see it, and you don’t want your copy to make a bad impression, right? But no one will ever complain if you choose “use” in your copy, so why not stick to the path of least resistance?

I mentioned before that there are exceptions to using “utilize.” First, there’s utilize in the “make use of” sense of the word, but that can get a little sticky. Here’s an example:

“The youth center received a donation of several computers, but it was unable to utilize them.”

In this case, “use” might have been unclear—did the people at the youth center not know how to use the computers? But even in this case in which the center could not make us of the computers, I might suggest further clarification to address why (due to lack of space, for example). See, sticky.

The other exception is to use something for other than its intended purpose. For example:

“MacGyver utilized the paper clip to defuse the ticking time bomb.”

But even in that case, I’d say “use” sounds better.

So let me just say again, make it easy on yourself, and choose “use” over “utilize” and you’ll almost always be in good shape.

About the author:

Tom Formaro is Senior Editor/Writer at Blu Pagoda LLC, a communications, content and marketing company. He has extensive editing and writing experience, with more than 20 years in professional communications with companies such as CE Software, International Network Services, Lucent Technologies, Cisco Systems, and Wells Fargo. Tom truly loves language and takes a no-excuses approach to getting the job done right. He’s the author of two books—the novel The Broken Heart Diet, and the children’s book, Alfonso, the Christmas Pumpkin—as well as numerous short stories. Tom has also taught small group writing workshops for aspiring storytellers. When not writing, Tom is usually busy being a dad or enjoying the rare opportunity to play drums.