Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of April 22, 1999
Utilize and Use
If you are already comfortable with your English, but you would like to refine it, then I suggest that you read "Getting the Words Right", by T.A.R. Cheney, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati (1983). It treats editing, and even after all my experience I learned a lot. Moreover, it is a joy to read. This passage concerning the difference between utilize and use is an example of his style.
"It would be difficult to find a page of governmental, military, or academic writing that doesn't have on it the word utilize. It must be one of the most over-utilized words in the world. It seems as though people out to impress people with the significance of what they're doing use utilize when they should use use.
Utilize is not an elegant variation of the word use; it has its own distinct meaning. When you utilize something, you make do with something not normally used for the purpose, e.g., you utilize a dime when the bloody screwdriver is nowhere to be found. If the screwdriver were there, you'd use it, not utilize a stupid dime for the purpose. Use use when you mean use, and utilize only when it's properly used to mean--to use something not normally used. The computer went off-line, so they utilized Mr. Wang's abacus, the one he liked to use. Despite the temporary breakdown, the computer's use-rate was up (not its utilization-rate)."
Searching in several sources, I found that Mr. Cheney lands in the minority with his definition of utilize. Most dictionaries equate utilize and use. But I do agree that utilize is overused (not overutilized), simply because it is a long and bureaucratic word, where a simple one projects the same meaning for fewer letters. Don't "utilize" utilize. Use use.
Try some examples, using Mr. Cheney's definitions of utilize and use.
1. Utilizing some string, I tied down the trunk of the car.
2. A camera was used to record the scene for future generations.
3. Putting the wrench to good use, I was able to fix the car.
4. A clever utilization of the tools at hand, the axe held down the tent on that windy day.
Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.
-E.F. Schumacher, an economist,
in "Small is Beautiful,"
Harper Perennial (1989)
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Created April 22, 1999, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.