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"Use" Versus "Utilize"

Plus a bonus topic: “pled” versus “pleaded.”

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty
March 13, 2009
Episode #161

Page 2 of 2

Bonnie says that as a copy editor she often reads fluffed up marketing material full of big words that try to make the writer sound important or knowledgeable. She usually just changes them to normal, unimpressive words that get the point across without much fuss. One of these words she changes often is “utilize,” as in the pretentious-sounding sentence “If you utilize this brand of printer, you will go far.” A sentence like that sounds fluffy and overly important, and it gives readers the impression that you’re trying too hard. Most of the time you can avoid the verb “utilize”; “use” works just fine (7).

So if you’re in marketing or PR, you can just use “use”; it’s probably not a good idea to utilize “utilize.” In a similar vein, please avoid the word “utilization.” It does your sentence no good.

Surprisingly, “utilize,” a 19th-century loanword from French (8), does have very specific and valid uses, mostly in the scientific world. The word “utilize” often appears “in contexts in which a strategy is put to practical advantage or a chemical or nutrient is being taken up and used effectively” (9). 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” (9).

So if you're a science writer, you might find yourself using the word “utilize.” If you’re just a regular person writing a regular sentence, you should probably just stick with the word “use.”

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 600.
2. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p. 1347.
3. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, p. 189.
4. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. 612-3.
5. Goldstein, N., ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996, p. 158.
6. Garner, B. A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 667.
7. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 480.
8. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 816.
9. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 480.

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