Should we stop utilizing 'utilize' and just use 'use'?

Oct 1, 2017

One of the best things about putting together That's What They Say is getting to utilize Professor Anne Curzan's vast knowledge of English to suss out language debates.

That's why when a listener named Bill asked us if we had ever covered the word "utilize," we were surprised when we realized we hadn't.

'This is one that pundits, friends and colleagues have been concerned about for awhile," Curzan says.

There are some who feel that "utilize" is unnecessary, pretentious or, for many other reasons, simply shouldn't be used.

Eric Partridge, in his book Usage and Abusage, gives a pretty blunt take on the matter: "The words 'utilize' and 'utilization' are, 99 times out of 100, much inferior to 'use,' both verb and noun; the other one time they are merely inferior."

In the 4th edition of The Elements of Style, Strunk and White ask, "Why would you ever use 'utilize' when you could use the simple, unpretentious 'use'?"

However, some have argued that there's a subtle difference between "utilize" and "use."

"Utilize" comes into English from French in the 19th century. That's quite a bit later than "use" which comes into English in the 13th century, also from French.

The earliest meaning of "utilize" seems to mean "to make useful" or "to make profitable." With that in mind, consider the following example we found on the Grammar Cops blog:

It is true that many occurrences of utilize could be replaced by "use" with no loss to anything but pretentiousness, for example, in sentences such as "They utilized questionable methods in their analysis" or "We hope that many commuters will continue to utilize mass transit after the bridge has reopened." But "utilize" can mean "to find a profitable or practical use for." Thus the sentence "The teachers were unable to use the new computers" might mean only that the teachers were unable to operate the computers, whereas "The teachers were unable to utilize the new computers" suggests that the teachers could not find ways to employ the computers in instruction.

It's certainly a subtle difference, and some would probably argue that "use" would still suffice in this case.

What do you think? Are there any cases in which you feel you absolutely must use "utilize" and not "use"? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.