How Do You Use Your Coffee Mug?

johnny_automatic_coffee_mugsToday’s writing tip considers the difference between use and utilize. In a 1992 Dilbert comic, Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss instructs him to edit a report by changing each instance of “use” to “utilize” – then concludes disappointedly that the report  is “still a bit too readable.”

Indeed, a common complaint among readers and editors is that “utilize” is overused by insecure writers who, aspiring to greater sophistication and complexity in their work, believe it is a fancier-sounding synonym for “use.” Many grammar and style advocates argue that “utilize” is not a substitute for “use”; rather, the two words have distinct meanings – and most of the time, the appropriate word is “use.”

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary offers by way of definitions (emphasis added):

Use: To put (an instrument, implement, etc.) to practical use; esp. to make use of (a device designed for the purpose) in accomplishing a task.

Utilize: To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.

The difference in the two words lies in whether you’re using something for its intended purpose.

If your coffee mug serves as a receptacle from which you drink your daily cup of coffee, congratulations. You’re using your coffee mug – i.e., you’re putting it to its intended use.

If your coffee mug serves as a receptacle for pens, pencils, and the odd paper clip, congratulations. You’re utilizing your coffee mug as a desk organizer – i.e., you’re using it for something other than its intended purpose.

Per the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, “utilize” can be properly deployed in scientific writing “in contexts in which a strategy is put to practical advantage or a chemical or nutrient is being taken up and used effectively” (qtd. in Grammar Girl).

As far as non-science writing goes, it’s true that “utilize” has been substituted for “use” with such frequency and for so long that most readers will understand the sentence regardless of which word you choose. But the practice of using the long word when the short one will do, as one grammar guide points out, often gives the reader the impression that you’re trying too hard – an unwelcome effect for any writer who wants to be taken seriously.

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