English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

My friend has been raising a ruckus about the abuse of the word "utilize" in place of the word "use." He complains that it just makes your sentences sound pretentious.

u·ti·lize [yoot-l-ahyz]

  • verb (used with object), -lized, -liz·ing. to put to use; turn to profitable account: to utilize a stream to power a mill.

utilize. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved April 06, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/utilize

Today we saw this post which uses "utilize":

each app vendor may utilize unique policies for app pricing."

He claims that this isn't a very good sentence to use "utilize" in. I don't disagree but what determines whether or not you should use "utilize" in place of "use?"

share|improve this question
How does 'u·ti·lize' become '[yoot-l-ahyz]'? – oosterwal Apr 7 '11 at 12:59
There is no sentence that fails to be improved by tossing out utilize in favor of use. – tchrist Jan 8 '12 at 0:02
@oosterwal Regional pronounciation variations? – mikhailcazi Aug 15 '13 at 13:36
Don't use 'utilize' when you can utilize 'use'. – SQB May 14 '14 at 9:37
@oosterwal it must be caused by noo-kyuh-ler radiation. – no comprende Apr 12 at 19:15
up vote 24 down vote accepted

This goes way back. From the Online Ety. Dict.:

1807, from Fr. utiliser, from It. utilizzare, from utile "usable," from L. utilis "usable," from uti (see use (v.)).

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.

share|improve this answer
+1 for the etymology, but I'd be hard-pressed to call it an error to substitute "utilize" for "use". It may be a pretentious or inadvisible choice, but it isn't exactly wrong. – user1579 Apr 7 '11 at 0:21
I've followed this debate in the usage guides for years. Here's the deal: When you "utilize" something, you're getting a bit of extra oomph from it. For example: I use my coffee grinder to prepare coffee beans. To powder dried herbs, I utilize my coffee grinder. – The Raven Apr 7 '11 at 0:38
+1 There's certainly an implication of advantage gained when something is "utilized" as opposed to merely being "used". This is a useful distinction to make in the right circumstances, but the example in the original post doesn't fit the bill in my opinion. – Snubian Apr 7 '11 at 1:56
I concur. The example in the original post would have been more happy with "use." The question as asked, however, did not concern that so I didn't address it. – The Raven Apr 7 '11 at 2:20
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' that '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. – oosterwal Apr 7 '11 at 13:28

I don't think there's anything seriously wrong with utilize (utilise in UK, so forgive me if I revert to type).

But it is a little pompous (only a very little, honest). The main reason I personally wouldn't 100% endorse its use here is that utilise is (in principle, at least) a somewhat more precise word than use. It often implies a degree of creativity in making something be capable of being used in a way not originally intended, rather than simply using something designed for the purpose of being thus used.

The vendors’ unique policies are obviously designed for the very use to which they will be put, so I think utilise is a bit overdone - slightly tautological, actually.

share|improve this answer
I 100% agree - and accordingly the OP's friend is essentially correct with regard to most occurences of "utilise". – Marcin Apr 7 '11 at 2:00
@Marcin: Yes. I didn't specifically point it out in my answer, but 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. – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '11 at 18:05

Well, I would turn it round: when there's a nice, short, plain, easily understood word that expresses what you want to say, I would suggest there's no need to use a long, psuedotechnical one instead just for the sake of it.

If you really feel that "utilise" conveys some extra/special meaning in the context in which you're using it, then fair enough. For example, in some contexts (but I think not this one), saying "utilise" rather than "use" may get across the notion of "making special use of something where it wouldn't usually be put to practical use". But if you're just trying to use a long word for the sake of it, then I would suggest that using clear, easy to understand language may be a more effective communication strategy.

The sentence you quote seems to be a classic case of somebody with poor writing skills attempting to sound impressive but in so doing they fail to see the wood for the trees in terms of getting their message across. They really could have just said "Each seller can define how they want to price their apps" and the message would have been to the point and easy to understand.

share|improve this answer
Your final sentence seems to imply that the original sentence might not be so easy to understand, but that seems unlikely to me. Anyway, it seems all three answers thus far agree on the (potential) difference in meaning for utilise, and agree that 'extended' meaning isn't relevant to the example. – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '11 at 0:29
"What's a nice word like you doing in a phrase like this?" – no comprende Apr 12 at 19:12

It is advantageous to utilize those linguistic constructs which most emphatically dialog the paradigm conceptualized by the origination entity-person.

Or you could just say what you mean.

I used to work for a company where any reports we wrote for delivery to a customer had to be edited by the company's "deliverable department". They routinely changed every place where I wrote "use" to "utilize" and replaced other short words with longer words. This was done so mechanically that I wouldn't be surprised if they just used the search-and-replace function in Word. I can't imagine any purpose for it other than to sound more pretentious. (I'm not saying there is never a legitimate reason to use the word "utilize", just that a wholesale replacement of "use" with "utilize" is silly.)

(They also once changed a statement about the steps you had to take to "effect a change" to saying you had to do this to "affect a change". Umm, no. The procedure didn't alter the change, it caused it. I guess someone read in a book that lots of people use "effect" as a verb when they mean "affect", and so they blindly changed it without reading or understanding the sentence.)

I've often said that when people set out to write, they tend to have one of two motives. (a) To inform or educate the reader. In this case, they tend to use simple words, clear examples, etc. (b) To impress the reader with how smart the author must be to understand this complicated subject. In this case, they use big words, convoluted examples, etc. People who are really good at (a) leave the reader walking away saying, "Wow, I don't know why people say differential calculus [or whatever] is so hard. It seems pretty logical and straightforward to me." People who are really good at (b) leave the reader walking away saying, "Wow, I never realized how complicated arithmetic really is. I thought I understood it until I read this book. That author must be a genius to understand this stuff; I couldn't make sense of a word of it."

share|improve this answer
You mean you "utilized to work for a company"? :) – SQB May 14 '14 at 9:35

The only necessary use I can think of is in 'utilization' which has a specific meaning different from 'usage'

share|improve this answer

Why would someone want to use a longer and uglier word when there's a better alternative? Utilize sounds like a middle manager in an insurance company sending out a memo to the lower echelons while trying to sound important. Utilize is pretentious and it gets dodgy when you try to add prefixes and suffixes: Underutilized versus underused? Abutilized versus abused? Underutilization versus underuse? No contest.

share|improve this answer
This is essentially just repeating what the original poster's friend said. Do you have any additional information to back up your claim or bring light to the subject? – Bradd Szonye Aug 15 '13 at 13:52

I tend to think of utilize in cases that seem "passive" - where there is no "user". So for example, we could say: a resource "has been fully utilized." This sidesteps the question of "by whom?" which is not relevant to the discussion.

It also leans toward the meaning of utility rather than the verb sense of consuming. The resource in question was "advantageously spent" rather than "put in to action". It seems very passive to me. The emphasis is on how much has been used rather than how it was used.

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 10 '13 at 12:55

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.