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To use, or to utilize, that is the question

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Posted by John Keller

I do try to use this blog space for matters of defense and/or aerospace issues, but now and then -- when I just can't take it anymore -- I shall utilize it to rant to the outer edges of sanity about some of the things that drive me just bloody, absolutely nuts.

Today's rant involves everyone out there -- even occasionally my own writers, fer crissakes -- who substitute the word 'utilize' for the exceedingly good, short, clear, and concise word 'use.'

Let me be clear: utilize is not a synonym for use, and you can't treat it as such. Some people think it is, and in their misguided, futile attempts to make themselves sound smart, write utilize where the word doesn't fit at all. Those who do this, in my book, succeed only in making themselves sound not only stilted and stand-offish, but ignorant as well.

Here's how it works: 'use' means to employ for some intended purpose. The key word here is intended. Utilize, on the other hand, means to employ for some unintended purpose. It sounds like a subtle difference at first glance, but it really isn't.

I may use my laptop computer in the library, for example, to write a story, update a spreadsheet, or play a quick game. If I get sleepy, however, I may curl up in a quiet corner and utilize my laptop as a pillow.

I may use the dime in my pocket to help pay for bus fare, yet I may utilize a dime as a screwdriver when I get home to fix that loose mailbox. Speaking of screws, I may use a screwdriver to fix the loose mailbox if I've used my last dime for bus fare, but I may utilize the handle of the screwdriver as a hammer to tap the mailbox back into place before I turn the tool around to tighten the offending screw.

Would it make sense for an engineer to utilize an EDA tool to help him design a complex integrated circuit or system on a chip? Certainly not. In fact, to suggest so would devalue, almost insult, the EDA tool in question, as well as belittle its manufacturer. PR people, think about that the next time you write a press release.

I know there are plenty of people who might go to references like the dictionary, look up use and utilize, and argue that the two words are interchangeable. You could do that, but I'll judge you to be incorrect.

Substituting the word use for the word utilize does not add variety by employing different synonyms; it's just plain wrong.

I know the technical writers and public relations people out there want to sound intelligent, but they ought not to attempt this by confusing these two clearly different, yet useful words.

Post a Comment

Blogger Lou Covey said...
It goes far beyond this issue , John. My first week as a technical editor at a defense contractor, I ran across sentence in a report that said, "The RB impacts on the ellipsoid rather than the geoid sphere."

I went to the engineer and asked, "Does this mean the warhead explodes in the air, not the ground?"

"Yes," he said.

"Can I say that?"

"No," he explained.

And thus I was launched into the world of technical writing.
Thursday, January 17, 2008 12:12:00 PM EST  

Blogger Jonathan Williams said...
From the American Heritage Dictionary on

"Usage Note: A number of critics have remarked that utilize is an unnecessary substitute for use. 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."

Further reading of entries reveals meanings equating to
"To put to use, especially to find a profitable or practical use for"

Just to muddy the waters further. But lest, I do agree with John. I was "raised" in the obfuscating Army back in the 80's, and then there was a huge push to simplify Army writing and just say what you mean, and not to try to impress your reader with your command of the English language and your ability to string together whole passages of fifty cent words.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008 4:55:00 PM EST  

Blogger MrBell said...
Thank you for THAT posting! I have a Mil-Aero background but now find myself in a classroom, helping my young charges with science, English and math. I assure you, this sliver of a generation will not throw about the "utilize" word thoughtlessly! (I try to get them not to say "lay down" either...)
Saturday, January 26, 2008 1:04:00 PM EST  

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Welcome to the lighter side of Military & Aerospace Electronics. This is where our staff recount tales of the strange, the weird, and the otherwise offbeat. We could put news here, but we have the rest of our Website for that. Enjoy our scribblings, and feel free to add your own opinions. You might also get to know us in the process. Proceed at your own risk.

John Keller for MAE
John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Courtney Howard for MAE Courtney E. Howard is senior editor of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine. She is responsible for writing news stories and feature articles for the print publication, as well as composing daily news for the magazine's Website and assembling the weekly electronic newsletter. Her features have appeared in such high-tech trade publications as Military & Aerospace Electronics, Computer Graphics World, Electronic Publishing, Small Times, and The Audio Amateur.

John McHale for MAE John McHale is executive editor of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, where he has been covering the defense Industry for more than dozen years. During that time he also led PennWell's launches of magazines and shows on homeland security and a defense publication and website in Europe. Mr. McHale has served as chairman of the Military & Aerospace Electronics Forum and its Advisory Council since 2004. He lives in Boston with his golf clubs.