Word Confusion: Use versus Utilize

Posted October 15, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 12 October 2017

Use generally implies employing or exploiting something for its usual purpose.

Utilize, on the other hand, literally meant to make utile and should be reserved to refer to using something that was otherwise idle or unproductive or that was being used in some unconventional way.

Such examples include using land that has lain fallow for a period of time, an immigrant professional unable to use his or her skills in another country due to licensing restrictions, a mechanic using a tool such as a big screwdriver as a pry bar, or Scarlett O’Hara sewing up a ballgown from drapery.

Today, though, utilize has been genericized through overuse and is closer to reflecting use. Except that utilize is a $5 word and more impressive than use and often used in contexts such as business or grant writing in place of a mere ordinary verb such as use, which would be simpler and more direct. The point is that using utilize can strike readers the wrong way; use it sparingly.

Consider the following:
I could use that information.

Anyone can do this.

I could utilize that information.

Sounds more important.

She used her dance experience to move easily in the kitchen.

Most people move around in a kitchen.

She utilized her dance experience to move easily on the soccer field.

It’s an unusual use for the flexibility that comes with dance.

Word Confusions started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Use Utilize
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Merriam-Webster: use and utilize

A turn-of-the-20th-century painting of a woman entering a horse-drawn taxi in Paris

“Home Driver” is an oil painting by Jean Béraud and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Horses have been of use for centuries.

Soldier riding an ATC down a dirt road.

“Troops Utilize Off-Road Vehicles for Patrols” by Spc. Samantha Parks is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Part of Grammar:
Noun 1; Verb, intransitive & transitive 2

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: uses
Past tense or past participle: used
Gerund or present participle: using

Verb, transitive

Third person present verb: utilizes
Past tense or past participle: utilized
Gerund or present participle: utilizing

The action of using something or the state of being used for some purpose

  • The ability or power to exercise or manipulate something, especially one’s mind or body
  • A purpose for or way in which something can be used
  • The value or advantage of something
  • [Law, historical] The benefit or profit of lands, especially lands that are in the possession of another who holds them solely for the beneficiary
  • The characteristic ritual and liturgy of a church or diocese
  • The action of taking or habitual consumption of a drug

Verb, intransitive:
Take, hold, or deploy something as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result

  • [Informal] Take an illegal drug

Used in the past with to to indicate a former fact or state

Verb, transitive:
Take, hold, or deploy something as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result

  • Employ
  • Put into action or service
  • Avail oneself of
  • Take or consume an amount from a limited supply of something
  • Exploit a person or situation for one’s own advantage
  • Treat or behave toward someone in a particular way
  • Apply a name or title to oneself
  • [One could use; informal] One would like or benefit from
  • [Informal] Take an illegal drug

[In past; used to] Describing an action or state of affairs that was done repeatedly or existed for a period in the past

  • Be or become familiar with someone or something through experience

[Archaic] Accustom, habituate

More formal word than use and often used in contexts, such as 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.

Make practical and effective use of:

  • Using something that was otherwise idle or unproductive
  • Something that was being used in some non-conventional way
A member of staff must be present when the pool is in use.

Theater owners were charging too much for the use of their venues.

The horse lost the use of his hind legs.

The herb has various culinary uses.

It was no use trying to persuade her.

What’s the use of crying?

He used her with no regard for her feelings.

His drug use is soaring out of control.

Well, drugs do have their uses.

I don’t care. I don’t have any use for addicts.

The land trust is set-up through the use of two instruments.

Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest — Gift or Threat? examines a variety of concerns about the use of “Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest”.

Verb, intransitive:
Had she been using again?

Verb, transitive:
She used her key to open the front door.

The poem uses simple language.

That backboard could use a coat of paint.

We have used all the available funds.

He had no use for abstract art.

I couldn’t help feeling that she was using me.

Use your troops well and they will not let you down.

She still used her maiden name professionally.

I could use another cup of coffee.

They were using heroin daily.

This road used to be a dirt track.

We used to go to the movies all the time.

I used to give him lifts home.

She was used to getting what she wanted.

He’s weird, but you just have to get used to him.

I didn’t use to like liver.

Vitamin C helps your body utilize the iron present in your diet.

Many of the library’s resources are not utilized by the townspeople.

We must utilize all the tools at our disposal.

She will only utilize it for the common good.

Jason utilized his camera to its full extent.

Adjective: used, useful
Noun: usage, user
Adjective: utilizable
Noun: utilization, utilizer
Phrasal Verb
be used up
use something up
use up
used to
History of the Word:
Middle English:

  • 1 First known use: 13th century
    • From Old French us, which is from the Latin usus, from uti meaning to use
  • 2 First known use: 14th century
    • From the Old French user, based on the Latin uti
First known use: 1807 from the French utiliser, which is from the Italian utilizzare from utile.

Return to top

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Pinterest Photo Credits

Credit to: T.K. Naliaka’s own work under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.