Wednesday, January 16, 2008

To use, or to utilize, that is the question

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.

1 comment:

  1. 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.