Writing Tip: Use and Utilize are Not the Same

Marsha FordStarred Page By Marsha Ford, 11th Feb 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/1c4q0-bs/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

Do you know the difference between use and utilize? Are you sure? If you don't know why this sentence is wrong, read on to find out: Feel free to utilize my computer if you need to search the internet.

Use and Utilize

“Don’t utilize utilize, use use instead.”

I can’t claim credit for the above quote, but as a self-proclaimed (and not so self) word geek, I find it pretty funny. Why? Because the over-use and misuse of utilize is one of my biggest peeves and the quote makes good fun of the distinction if you know the difference between use and utilize. For example, the following sentence is actually incorrect.

Feel free to utilize my computer if you need to search the internet.

What Does "Use" Mean?

Given that use is such a common word, we all have a pretty good understanding of what it means. Merriam-Webster includes six definitions for use, but in this case we’re interested in its first meaning: “the art or practice of employing something.” We use use everyday and rarely have to think about it. For example:

• Use my car instead of taking the bus.
• May I use your computer?
• I wish he would use his time more wisely.

In none of these cases would it be correct to replace use with utilize. While the two words are close in meaning, they are not the same.

So, What Does "Utilize" Mean?

Merriam-Webster defines utilize as, “to make use of; turn to practical use or account.” So how is this different from use? In a nutshell, to utilize something is to give it a use it may not have originally had. For example:

• Yes, you can utilize the conference room for your holiday party.
• We utilize Excel for our database instead of Access.
• Our company utilizes many common tools to come up with new innovations.

How to Choose Between "Use" and "Utilize"

Basically, the choice between use and utilize depends on how the item you are referring to is normally employed. For example:

• You use a pen to write, but can utilize it as a weapon.
• You use a dining table for eating, but can utilize it as work space.
• You use a car for driving, but you and your hot date can utilize it for…

The next time you are tempted to use (misuse) utilize, take a moment to think about it. Often people use utilize as a synonym for use, or because they think it makes their writing loftier. Please, don’t. As the opening quote implies, when you use utilize when you really mean use, you’re employing utilize in a way it’s not intended for (incorrectly applying its own definition). And, if you’re ever in doubt about choosing between the two, just use use and you won’t be guilty of misuse.


Grammar, Use, Utilize, Word Choice, Word Usage

Meet the author

author avatar Marsha Ford
I've been a freelance writer and editor for more than 10 years, writing on a variety of topics. I also run a blog on business writing: http://writingbizblog.blogspot.com/

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author avatar James R. Coffey
11th Feb 2011 (#)

I wonder if the distinction is really worth it?

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author avatar Skyeberg
5th Aug 2011 (#)

Yes, it's worth it.

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author avatar Jbark
24th Oct 2013 (#)

o my god yes it is. i work with someone who uses utilize in daily speech and it is horrible. It sounds very pretentious

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author avatar Marsha Ford
11th Feb 2011 (#)

Hi James. I think that's a fair enough question. I also think the answer is, it depends. It's really more about taking the time to know your words and then deciding from there.

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author avatar Denise O
12th Feb 2011 (#)

Well done Marsha. You explained it very well. Congrats on the star page, it is well desrved.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar Marsha Ford
12th Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks, Denise!

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author avatar R. Person
14th Feb 2011 (#)

I never knew that there was even a difference! Thanks for educating us on this topic!

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author avatar Marsha Ford
14th Feb 2011 (#)

My pleasure, Rachel. Glad it helped!

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author avatar Retired
15th Feb 2011 (#)

A very nice piece of work. Thanks for the great share.

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author avatar Marsha Ford
15th Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks, Martin. Glad you like it. I'm sitting here reading -and really appreciating- your articles; kudos to you.

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author avatar Retired
17th Feb 2011 (#)

well done, and thanks for teh info, better done than all my profs put together.

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author avatar Marsha Ford
17th Feb 2011 (#)

LOL. Thanks, Rebecca.

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author avatar Martin King
18th Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks for the article It makes you think now does'nt

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author avatar Rathnashikamani
2nd Mar 2011 (#)

Your work made a great difference in utilizing their differences! Am I right or wrong?

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author avatar Marsha Ford
2nd Mar 2011 (#)

LOL! Could be, Rathnashikamani.

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author avatar Jonnycomelately
25th Jul 2011 (#)

Whew! I thought I was the only person who sees this and is bothered by it. I hope more people find this topic on-line.

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author avatar Tranquilpen
27th Jan 2012 (#)

This is great and I have a whole list of words like that, I have to, for example write Americanism because it can effect my readership Humour is correct in all other parts of the world but I write it spelled as in a spell having been cast over me.and not spelt as I want it written also the words blue (blu) etc. thank you for sharing.

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author avatar Josh
15th Feb 2013 (#)

Seems like (based on the definitions of each word), it may be wrong to use "utilize" in many situations, but one may utilize "utilize" and be entirely correct.

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author avatar Paul
2nd Oct 2013 (#)

I think your interpretation of the meaning of utilize is entirely incorrect. I can't find a single dictionary that narrows the meaning in such a way. I think that you are preverting the word to meet your needs. Just admit you don't like the word and move on. Utilize comes from the French, to use, not to give new purpose to something.

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author avatar Dean
6th Oct 2013 (#)

Ugh the use of "utilize" makes me nuts! Thanks for the great explanation Marsha!!

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author avatar N
8th Nov 2013 (#)

Whether or not "utilize" is a legitimate word, it's used far too much in both the written and spoken language. Scroll up to the six examples above and substitute "use" where the author uses "utilize," and then decide which "sounds" better. "Utilize" simply grates on my ears.

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author avatar Julie
9th Jun 2014 (#)

The argument to use "utilize" instead of "use," was very weak. In every example, substituting "use" for "utilize" did not alter the meaning, and "utilize" did not clarify it. "Utilize" should be banned from the English language!

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author avatar Nick Wright
26th Sep 2014 (#)

Plain English for utilize is use. Only use utilize if you mean using for other than the intended purpose.

Our StyleWriter software checks for such misuse, encourages plain English and shows you how to write in a clear and readable style.

Utilize is just one of 250,000 checks the program performs.

Nick Wright
Designer of StyleWriter copy-editing software
Email: info@editorsoftware.com
StyleWriter Demos and Free Trial at: http://www.editorsoftware.com

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author avatar Windez
30th Sep 2014 (#)

Ugg. This piece started off so well. I was hoping this was a useful description of the difference between these words but it is so off the mark. Please read this http://throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com/2013/12/using-utilize-what-mavens-say.html and you will see what I mean. When "utilizing" one doesn't re-purpose it, but "makes use" of it - puts it into full or proper use, not an unintended use. Why is this so difficult?

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author avatar Stu
2nd Nov 2014 (#)

I think the author is wrong about the definition of the word 'Utilise' and its difference from 'Use'. Commenter Windez here is correct: Utilization it is about formal full use to achieve a purpose. Sure Utilise is overused and misused, but the author does not provide a single credible reference (grammar text book, etc. ) to substantiate her opinionated claim as to its correct usage.

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author avatar Dinesh
10th Jun 2015 (#)

Basically, you can use the word ‘use’ interchangeably, but you cannot do the same with the word ‘utilize’.
‘Use’ refers to the proper and intended job with which the individual or item is acceptably associated. ‘Utilize’ is more creative, meaning that you have found a not-so-traditional manner in which to create a new function for the individual or item.
You ‘utilize’ items when you create a new or nontraditional job for the item.

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author avatar Mark
20th Feb 2016 (#)

I found the follow in the Oxford English dictionary:

"1.1 trans. To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.
   Rare before 1858. ‘Utilize is fast antiquating improve, in the sense of “turn to account”’ (1873 F. Hall Mod. Eng. 167).

   1807 J. Barlow Columbiad ix. 683 Improve and utilise each opening birth, And aid the labors of this nurturing earth.    1824 Westm. Rev. April 454 Izmail and Kilia‥are respectively able to nullify or to utilize the northern mouth of the Danube.    1860 Ruskin Mod Paint. V. ix. xi. §22 Let all physical exertion‥be utilized.    1882 Pitman Mission Life in Greece & Pal. 123 Her services could not be utilised for missions."

Great article on the uses of use and utilize.

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