When you take an object and deploy it for some purpose, do you use or utilize it? Some mistakenly believe the two words mean the same thing.
If you were given a choice between the words use or utilize for something you’re writing, would your choice depend on the audience? Think about it for a second: If you were writing a paper for your boss, which one would you select? Assume that you’re referring to the act of taking an object and doing with it what would satisfy its general purpose.
Some of you would grab the fancier utilize, thinking that it sounds “more formal.” You might just be one of those folks. In fact, this post was inspired by an article titled “Our Team’s Biggest Grammar Pet Peeves” on StyleBlueprint.
Whenever I work with younger writers in the news business, I’ll invariably give one piece of advice early on: Don’t glam it up. With that, I mean to stop using 25¢ words when a nickel word will do just fine. I think many people believe that utilize is just a fancy synonym for use.
A synonym is a word or group of words that have the same or nearly the same meaning.
But utilize technically isn’t a synonym for use. There’s a key difference in meaning. Most people don’t seem to know it.
How you might use or utilize a set of keys
Everyone uses keys at some point, right? When you use a key, you’re either locking something or unlocking it. In other words, you’re taking the key and performing an action consistent with the key’s purpose.
Recently, I was trying to break the a plastic seal around a bottle top. The seal was a heavy but pliable plastic. But I couldn’t get it to tear because there was no perforation. So I grabbed the keys in my pocket. I used the teeth from one key to cut a tiny nick in the plastic seal. From there, I was able to tear it and open the bottle.
I might have used the key to open my car door once I left the grocery store where I bought the bottle. But I then utilized they key to break the seal on the bottle.
No, it wasn’t an alcoholic product. I wouldn’t have been trying to open that in my car!
But I hope you see the point: You use an object in a manner consistent with its purpose. You utilize an object in a manner it wasn’t intended to be used to accomplish something different.
Grammarist points out that you can place the word use in place of utilize. Use can work whether your action involves a product and its intended use or not. But you can’t substitute use with utilize, because most of us take an object and use it for what it was intended to be used for.
If I operate a remote control to change the channel on my TV, I’m using it. If I take the remote and use it to scratch an itch on my back, I’m utilizing the remote for a different purpose. Yes, I’m accomplishing something with it, but the designer of the remote probably didn’t have that particular function in mind.
It’s curious how our language operates, isn’t it? Subtle differences like this serve as a good reminder of a basic rule of writing: Don’t glam it up.