Writing Tip: Use and Utilize are Not the Same
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
- What Does "Use" Mean?
- So, What Does "Utilize" Mean?
- How to Choose Between "Use" and "Utilize"
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.