Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Use "Utilize" (And How Not to Utilize It)

Just avoid the word utilize, advises David Foster Wallace in the first entry of his "Twenty-Four Word Notes":
Utilize     A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn't do, its extra letters and syllables don't make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she'll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. ... What's worth remembering about puff-words is [that] "formal writing" does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.
Here is Grammar Girl saying much the same thing.

Now here's a rare exception—a case where utilize does precisely the work the writer wants it to do:
...recently a small boy, washed overboard in the Atlantic, was rescured hours later clinging to a large sea turtle which was swimming on the surface at a stately, level pace. Presumably this act of keeping him afloat was not an act of mercy on the turtle's part (though some turtles do know about "drowning"—they drown ducks, catching them from below by the feet and pulling them underwater). The turtle probably just felt comfortable in company with the boy, animal-to-animal, felt a sort of rudimentary comradeship, so that it made no objection to being utilized as a life-ring.
This is from "The War in the Woods," by Ted Hoagland, written in 1971. Hoagland is a craftsman who chooses every word carefully. Utilize, here, conveys something beyond mere use: a sense of transforming the default role of a thing; of making useful a thing that did not necessarily exist to be used so.

My primary dictionary, The American Heritage Fourth Edition, provides this usage note:
... It is true that many occurrences of utilize could be replaced by use with no loss to anything but pretentiousness, for example, in sentences such as They utilized questionable methods in their analysis or We hope that many commuters will continue to utilize mass transit after the bridge has reopened. But utilize can mean "to find a profitable or practical use for." Thus the sentence The teachers were unable to use the new computers might mean only that the teachers were unable to operate the computers, whereas The teachers were unable to utilize the new computers suggests that the teachers could not find ways to employ the computers in instruction.
David Foster Wallace was actually a member of the usage panel for this dictionary, although it would seem this usage note was not written by him. Wallace's advice strikes me as best. To avoid tripping silent cringe-alarms all around you, make utilize rare in your lexicon. Habitually use use, reserving utilize for the rare case where it is precisely the right word.

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