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When should one use usage instead of use? Examples?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I tend to agree with Peter Shor:

The word prevarication is not in common use.


The word prevarication is not common usage.

(A sentence that presumably refers to some previous use of prevarication in a non-standard way.) Note how dropping the preposition changes the context of the phrase.

A question that can be asked is whether usage has any really useful use, other than for pedants.

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My gut feeling was to agree with you and Peter, but this NGram shows not in common usage is more common than without "in". But neither version is anywhere near as common as not in common use. –  FumbleFingers Dec 14 '11 at 22:01

Usage is how something is used; the fact of something being used is use; the degree to which something is used is utilization.

The word prevarication is not in common usage.
The use of safety belts in mandatory.
The utilization of safety belts has reached 70%.

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I'd agree with the first two definitions there, but I've never heard that the third is true. Can you cite anything for that? –  Daniel Jul 18 '11 at 11:59
I'd disagree with your first example; I'd say "The word prevarication is not in common use." but "The usage of the word prevarication has changed." –  Peter Shor Jul 18 '11 at 21:03

I thought to excerpt this article because it mentions the etymology, and concludes by using use and usage in the same sentence.

What is the difference between ‘use’ and usage’? Both come from the same Latin word usus (noun), which in turn is from the verb uti - to use. So how do they differ?

The difference is subtle but useful.

The noun ‘use’ comes from the verb ‘use’, meaning to employ for a given purpose or put into action, and larger dictionaries will list many variations and adaptations of that basic meaning. Examples are:
‘I use a keyboard to type in these words’ ‘I use a knife and fork to eat my dinner’, ‘I use short words in speaking with small children, because they probably won’t understand long words’. So the noun ‘use’ (with the ‘s’ as in ‘goose’, not, as for the verb, as in ‘cruise’) means a given purpose or application. Examples would be: ‘The English language is in common use around the world’ , ‘I put my keyboard to good use’.

For the noun ‘usage’ the basic dictionary definition can look pretty much the same as that for ‘use’, but with ‘usage’ there is a sense of ‘continued’ or ‘common’ use. And with language, the distinction is that ‘usage’ is the way the language is actually used, as distinct from what might look correct if you try to construct a sentence or phrase from a dictionary and grammar book. Examples would be: ‘Although old-fashioned grammarians say you should never split an infinitive, that is done every day in common usage.’ and ‘I was taught at school that every sentence must have a verb, but actual usage shows that many excellent writers include in their work ‘sentences’ without verbs, such as ‘His arrival at any gathering was always a dramatic event. Bold. Arresting.’

How useful is this distinction? Well, in everyday life it probably doesn’t have a lot of application, but for me it is an interesting distinction, partly because of the origin of the words. As indicated above, both use and usage come to us from the Latin usus, but usage has arrived via Old French, from the 14th century AD.

But there is a very practical consideration here.

Anyone who wants to be a highly confident, fluent speaker of English would do well to develop an insatiable curiosity to know the appropriate usage, which is a way of employing language at a higher level than technically correct use.

For those who want to have a ready reference on this subject, I recommend The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

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Usage is also more commonly used than use to specify a quantity; for example, electricity usage.

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  • Usage: rules of language

  • Use: meaningful communicative behavior

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Usage: rules of language Use: meaningful communicative behaviour

The term usage refers to conventions, most often to those of language. Thus, 'English usage' or 'French usage' refers to the conventions of those languages, respectively. When we refer to 'word usage', we mean the conventions for using words; when we refer to 'use of words', we mean only the employment of words: 'This text describes the principles of word usage'. 'He is noted for his frequent use of wrong words'.

People frequently use usage when they should use use. The noun usage should not be substituted for use when the meaning is 'the employment of' – even if you think it sounds more 'sophisticated'. It is not correct to say that "the wise usage of computers saved the company money" or 'usage of insulation can save fuel'. In both instances, use is the appropriate word.

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