Use, Not Utilize

by Randy Murray on December 5, 2011


Use is the word you want.

You use a hammer to drive in a nail. You use the spatula to flip the pancakes. You use the company’s procedures to hire a new assistant.

Hammer, spatula, procedures. You don’t utilize any of these things. You use them.

Yes, utilize is a word. It’s a perfectly cromulent word. It’s just not necessary. It’s clunky, jargony, and awkward. And it’s always a poor choice.

Why worry about these things? Language shifts, changes. New words appear. That’s a natural and desirable part of language. And so is the struggle for clarity. New words are one thing, but new words that are less clear, that are simply intended to make the speaker, the writer, sound more technical or intelligent or refined, rarely do what the speaker or writer intends. Words like utilize are a flashing red light that signals, “I’m trying to sound smarter than I am.” I cringe when I hear it in others. When it slips up on me I try to immediately correct it.

As a writer, you need to take up arms and fight for clarity. Coin new words. Go for it. Champion new terminology. But you should always fight for clarity. When a new word, a fancy sounding word, finds itself upon your page and it does a less good job of saying what you mean, strike it out.

Delete it. Use your red pen.

Your struggle will embiggen us all.

Use, Not Utilize by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Al Tenhundfeld December 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm

My understanding differs slightly from yours. I agree it’s safer to always go with use instead of utilize, but there are cases where utilize is also correct and has a slightly different connotation.

Utilize is appropriate when you are using an object for something other than its intended purpose.

You use a screwdriver to fasten a screw.
You utilize a screwdriver to open a paint can.

That’s not a perfect example, though it’s the one used on “A Way With Words”, but the idea is that you are taking an object and turning it into a tool for a nonstandard purpose.


Randy Murray December 6, 2011 at 7:19 am

I agree. My example of the correct use of “utilize” is:

“I utilized a hammer to drive in those last screws.”

In much the same way I utilized this post to drive home a point. Crude, not entirely accurate, but effective.

Thanks for contributing!


Eurobubba December 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I’d say “always” is always a poor choice. “Utilize” can be preferable to “use” if the emphasis is on whether you’re getting the full benefit out of an asset, for example. Sure, if you’re only “utilizing” the word because you think it makes you sound smart, well, it doesn’t. But if you’re using it because it really does mean something distinct from “use”, then you are fighting for clarity. IMHO.


Randy Murray December 6, 2011 at 7:11 am

You are correct. Utilize should be used when you want to say “get by with.”


Eurobubba March 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm

I’m thinking more along the lines of “we should retool our widget factory so we can utilize the excess capacity to meet growing demand for sprockets”.


Michael Armstrong March 7, 2013 at 11:45 am


“I utilized a hammer to drive in those last screws?” How is that better than “I used a hammer to drive in those last screws,” or “I got by with a hammer to drive in those last screws?”

Say it out loud. If it makes you want to shove sharpened pencils in your ears, it’s the wrong word to use.


Randy Murray March 7, 2013 at 11:54 am

It’s not better. It’s correct usage. For best effect, please only use utilize in scientific literature.


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