The Grammarphobia Blog

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Q: Let’s dispense with “utilize.” I can’t think of a single instance when “use” would not be better (and FAR less pretentious). A professor once explained to me that “use” refers to using something in a way that’s intended while “utilize” refers to using something in a way NOT intended. For instance, he’d use a toothbrush to brush his teeth, but he’d utilize one to clean grout. Is this true? No dictionary I’ve consulted makes such a distinction, and it positively GRATES on me to hear people talk about “utilizing” ANYTHING!

A: You’re right about the inflated verb “utilize.” It usually means the same thing as “use”: to make use of or employ. People who utilize “utilize” when they could utilize “use” want to sound more authoritative than they are.

To be fair to your old professor, however, some dictionaries do make a distinction between “use” and “utilize,” though not the one he made. Although both words can mean to make use of something, “utilize” can also mean to use something in a practical or profitable way, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references dating back to 1807 for “utilize” as a verb meaning to make or render useful. The far-older verb “use” has meant to make use of or to put into practice from at least the early 14th century.

So, yes, there is a slight difference in meaning between the two words, but I don’t think most people who use “utilize” are aware of it. They just want a longer word.

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