Monday, March 05, 2007

"Utilizing" up my patience...

What is up with all this use of the word utilize lately? Such an ugly, overblown, useless word, when its much simpler, less distracting cousin (um, hello, poor, neglected little "use"! At least I still love you!) is always around to help out. Let me quote at length from a handy dandy dictionary:

Utilize |ˈyoōtlˌīz| verb [ trans. ] make practical and effective use of : vitamin C helps your body utilize the iron present in your diet. ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from French utiliser, from Italian utilizzare, from utile (see utile 1 ).USAGE Utilize, borrowed in the 19th century from the French: utiliser, means 'make practical or effective use of.'

Because it is a more formal word than use and is often used in contexts (as in business writing) where the ordinary verb use would be simpler and more direct, utilize may strike readers as pretentious jargon and should therefore be used sparingly.

The Columbia Journalism Review shares my distaste, saying, "usually all people gain by using it is two syllables and the joy of feeling superior when in fact they sound ridiculous." One online reference source says, "it is nearly always possible, and more elegant, to say use."

D'ya hear that, people? You could sound more elegant by merely dropping the word "utilize" from your vocabulary!

Kam "utilizes" his teddy bear for comfort.

This person makes the most heart-felt case for the word, but even that is hardly a passionate plea for the word's utility. She defines, for instance, a situation where the word may be appropriate, but even then gives an alternate without the little fiend:

For example, "The teacher couldn't use the new computer" means something completely different from "The teacher couldn't utilize the new computer." The former means that the teacher didn't know how to turn it on, or didn't know what the mouse was for, or that it was broken or otherwise unavailable, or something like that--that the teacher could do nothing at all with the computer. The latter means that while the teacher could do something with the computer, he or she was unable to do something practical with it--use it in instruction, perhaps.

Since people tend to dislike utilize, it might be prudent to rewrite even a sentence where it is used correctly--"The teacher couldn't use the new computer effectively," perhaps, or something more specific.

Some lessons to take from this:

  1. People who use this word in their day-to-day blog posts sound like pompous jerks.

  2. People who use this word in a sentence such as: "They do not properly utilize the theory to suit their argument" are actually saying "They do not properly make practical or effective use of the theory..." and are therefore being redundant, silly, and sound like pompous jerks.

  3. If you see the word "utilize" used in a blog post, you have learned a profound insight into the writer's psyche. There is now no need to keep reading. Drop that blog like a hot potato!

Obviously, the word can be used properly. Somehow, though, that doesn't diminish its hideousness. And because the word retains its pretentious overtones, it is not a word that should be used lightly. The word "utilize" should be a trigger, causing us to re-evaluate the sentence. Is it clear? Is it precise? Does it convey the proper tone? Can it be said better? If you are in love with the way it makes you sound, no amount of convincing from little old me will convince you to strike it from your repertoire. So I will only add, please utilize at your discretion.



Threnody said...

Honestly there's nothing that bugs me more than pretentious blog posts. I can be as wordy when the next guy when it's suitable.

Sometimes that obscure word just perfectly says what you want to say like no other. However, when your post is so filled with obscure prose that it reads like a poem, you're just clouding your message to try and sound important.

I guess journalism school taught me some useful skills after all! The funny thing is I used to get in trouble in my other classes for not being wordy enough!

L-girl said...

"Utilize" is one of my pet peeves, too. Grrr.

How about "orientate"? My current non-fave is "belatedly". Oh, I got a million of 'em...

Hey Sarah, thanks for the link! I'm honoured to have made the short list.