The Grammarphobia Blog

How do we know when usage changes?

Q: You’ve written that it’s acceptable (though perhaps pretentious) to use “utilize” instead of “use.” I’d venture to say “utilize” has nearly replaced “use.” It seems most people prefer three syllables to one; I do not. How do you judge when popular usage overwhelms tradition? Why do you accept “utilize,” for instance, but not “fun” as an adjective, though you acknowledge it’s common too?

A: You ask a very complicated  question, and the answer won’t be black and white.

When we make a judgment about a  usage, we consult many sources: the OED as well as current standard dictionaries (and sometime older ones, for historical perspective); old and new usage guides; scholarly studies where available; and articles in journals like American Speech.

This gives us a feel for whether educated opinion about a usage has changed.

The examples of “use/utilize” and “fun” as an adjective are different.

No one denies that “utilize” is a legitimate verb and part of the language. It’s been used in the sense of “to make useful” for a couple of hundred years.

Although “utilize” originally suggested putting something to a new or expanded use, dictionaries now accept the looser meaning of putting something to use – that is, using it.

The question here is not legitimacy; it’s style: is “utilize” a more or less felicitous choice than “use”?

But the increasingly common use of the noun “fun” as an attributive adjective represents a change in part of speech – a change that’s still labeled nonstandard by many (though not all) sources.

Changes in grammatical function are much slower to gain acceptance than relatively small changes in the meaning of a word where no new function is involved.

I hope this doesn’t just muddy the waters. Many of these things are judgment calls that leave room for disagreement.

As we wrote in our 2008 posting about “utilize,” it’s not a word we like but we can’t call it incorrect. And we think it’s more likely to be used in writing than in speech.

People like to be pretentious in writing, but they tend to use more natural English in speech.

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