"Use" Versus "Utilize"

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

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

Today guest-writer Bonnie Trenga is helping us talk about two sets of words that listeners get confused: “pleaded guilty” or “pled guilty,” and “use” or “utilize.”

“Plead” Versus “Pled”

Mike from Georgia is transitioning from law enforcement to freelance writing and wants to know which is correct: “He pled guilty” or “He pleaded guilty.” He says that some of the people he calls his hoity-toity friends claim that “pleaded” is always right, but he’s heard educated people use “pled.” Don’t be afraid to argue with a grammar snob on this issue because in America, Scotland, and some areas of the U.K. you could use “pled” if you wanted to (1); but you should also be prepared to eventually concede.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the sentence “He pled guilty.” It seems to be a logical way to form the past tense of the verb “to plead,” just as it’s perfectly correct to write the past-tense verb “led” in “He led me away.” Today he leads; yesterday he led—no problem. Of course, hearing something doesn’t make it right, so I checked my dictionary (2). Indeed it lists “pled” as a valid past-tense form or past participle of the verb “to plead.” So grammar miscreants did not deviously gather together and make up that word to enrage grammarians, but some grammarians are mad. Sources I checked fall all along the spectrum of indignation. One (3) flatly states, “The past tense of ‘plead’ is ‘pleaded,’ not ‘pled.’” Another, Bryan Garner (4), acknowledges the existence of “pled” but admonishes us that “‘Pleaded’ is the predominant form in both American English and British English and always the best choice.” The AP Stylebook (5), used by journalists, sums it up well, I think: “Do not use the colloquial past-tense form, ‘pled.’”

Since we’re dealing with legal issues, I checked with a lawyer to be certain. She and her husband, also a lawyer, kindly referred me to Garner, whom I’ve already quoted. He has written multiple legal-oriented tomes in addition to the grammar guide I quoted earlier, and they all advise lawyers to use “pleaded,” though Garner does acknowledge in one legal guide (6) that “pled” “is a common variant in legal usage.” Yet it's not that common in the news: a quick search of Google News shows that “pleaded guilty” is about 60 times more common than “pled guilty.”

So, even though it seems that lawyers occasionally do say, “pled,” you should probably avoid “pled” unless you want to risk the indignation of the so-called hoity-toity.

“Use” Versus “Utilize”

Now on to the difference between “use” and “utilize,” thanks to a question from Thomas.

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.


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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