Why the $10 word, folks?

The little one is the better choice.

Everyone should have a friend with whom they can silently roll their eyes, in unison, while politely listening to a speaker who chooses overstuffed words that, one would suppose, are meant to indicate intelligence, sophistication, or such. My friend-in-eye-rolling is Sharon Green, and I’ve got to tell you, Sharon’s got way more English language creds than I do. (That said, I can roll my eyes with the best of them.)

About four years ago Sharon and I, in the company of a half-dozen colleagues, were participating in a web demonstration of a new platform our company was thinking of adopting. I would guess the speaker’s age at about 25, although I’m not sure age is even relevant here. This is an approximation of what we heard as we watched the demo on the screen:

“Now, if you want to see entries from an earlier date, you’ll want to utilize this option here. Then, to sort the list by topic, just utilize this button called ‘sort.’ Most organizations utilize that function on a fairly regular basis. I would say a membership organization like yours will have to utilize ‘sort by date’ and ‘sort by topic’ no less often than monthly. And if you have trouble, just click up here on the right and utilize the knowledge base we’ve assembled…”

Have you ever rolled your eyes until you’ve given yourself a headache? Sharon and I, across the table from each other, nearly exploded from the pain of listening to this young man, clearly unable to bring himself to say the little, three-letter word: use. To be fair, our colleagues didn’t seem as frustrated as we did by his choice of words, but then they’re not our eye-rolling buddies, either. We both wanted to scream, “Use, for heaven’s sake. Use! Just use the button. Use the function. Use the doggoned knowledge base. What’s with the ‘utilize’ thing?!”

That was four years ago. It’s only gotten worse. That young man is now in good company, as a huge percentage of writers and speakers who come and go in my life are now utilize-crazy. Hooked! Convinced, I believe, that “use” is an inferior option, perhaps relegated to “common” usage by (oh, I was going to say “deplorables,” but I’d best not go there) – by lower class, under-educated, less cool folks, perhaps. Maybe “professionalism” now hinges on selection of the largest, most pretentious word possible, and “utilize” beats “use” in both letters and syllables. It must be better. And they both mean the same thing, right?

Wrong!

Following a heartfelt discussion of these two closely related but unique words with distinct applications, Sharon and I committed to searching the worldwide web to see if anyone might be rolling their eyes in concert with us. Here’s some of what we found:

On the QuickandDirtyTips.com blog of Grammar Girl, we found an article by guest author Bonnie Trenga. She explains: “Surprisingly, ‘utilize,’ a 19th-century loanword from French, 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. 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.’ 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.’”

Oh, bless your heart, Bonnie! Let’s see what other sources say.

“It's used in the sense of ‘to make profitable use of,’ as opposed to the bare ‘use,’ which just means ‘to employ.’ There's a nuance there that speakers have found useful. The only error is the use of ‘utilize’ when ‘use’ alone would suffice.” (This was posted in 2011 by The Raven:

“Professional editor with expertise in etymology, lexicography, and dictionary construction. I specialize in American vocabulary and usage circa 1925-1965, which I consider to be a period of exceptional quality in American literature.”)

And we consider you, Mr. or Ms. Raven, to be of exceptional quality too! Thank you!

Also way back in 2011, discovered along with The Raven in a discussion posted on a site called “English Language and Usage,” we were blessed with this insight from “Oosterwal”: “While ultimately 'use', 'utilize', and 'utility' all share the same Latin root 'uti', 'use' also has the additional Latin root 'usus'. The words come to English through Middle French. 'Utilize' is still more closely related to 'utility' than 'use' is. 'Utilize' means to use something in a way other than how it was intended: ‘Normally I would use a hammer to pound this nail, but I don't have one so I'll utilize this brick to pound the nail.’ You could employ 'use' in this example, but 'utilize' emphasizes the fact that bricks aren't supposed to be used to pound nails.”

2011. Clearly that was the year that was! Has the world gone mad in the past five years? Listen, friends, to Bonnie and The Raven and Oosterwal. “Use” means to employ or make use of. Ninety percent of the time, all you’ve got to do is use something. Only when you want to demonstrate that a thing is being employed for a use other than originally intended, or for a specific advantage to be gained, perhaps a scientific or economic one, would you choose “utilize.”

Someone who calls himself/herself (there’s no such thing as “themself”) Fumble Fingers shared this perspective: “I'm afraid the truth is some people use the word utilise under the mistaken impression that this gives their statement a touch of 'gravitas'. It doesn't, of course - just makes them look a bit pretentious.” (Fumble Fingers admits to a degree in English and French followed by a career in software development.)

So, there you have it. Sharon and I have rolled our eyes over this one long enough. It’s time to tell the world that, in at least 90% of cases, the word “use” is the one you ought to use. Save “utilize” for a very particular application as described above. Please. Sharon and I aren’t getting any younger, and rolling our eyes isn’t getting any easier. Please, use “use.”