When to Use Utilize

The short version: when in doubt, don’t use the word utilize. It’s an unlovely construction that sounds wordy/pretentious and shouldn’t have been incorporated into English in the first place, but here we are. I have some additional things to share on this topic, but today’s entry will be short. Lucky you.

Where Did “Utilize” Come From, Anyway?

According to the Quick and Dirty Tips site (emphasis is mine),

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” (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.”*

(* Source: American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 480.)

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.”

So unless you’re implementing a strategy or discussing the consumption of a chemical, you really don’t need to use utilize, do you? Sure, it’s a big word, and it sounds impressive, but is it necessary to use it? Not really. The goal is to make your prose flow easily and read easily. Utilize (or worse, utilization) forces the reader to slow down. Why use a three- or five-syllable word when a one-syllable word will do the job just as effectively and keep distracting your reader?

Here to help.


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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