“Use” vs. “Utilize”

If you’re not an English-grammar-nerd, and aren’t interested in the finer points of word choice, or just don’t have a sense or amusement about language, then you should probably skip this article.

We all hate Corporate-speak, right? Onboarding. Synergy. Words like that. We also (should) hate the “shortcut words,” as I call them, that the tech industry in particular adopts. On-premise, as an example, actually means, “your stories or actions are in alignment with the original premise.” If you want to shortcut on-premises to on-prem, fine, I guess I can understand how you kids are hoarding your extra syllables these days. But I digress.

One of the more egregious examples of fuzzy language in the tech industry (and certainly elsewhere) is the word utilize. People use it to sound smarter, because “z” and all that. We utilize the tool to achieve greater synergies in our onboarding process. But almost always, it’s wrong, and you should have used “use” instead.

“Use” means to put something into action, to employ something for some purpose, to consume something, and so on. So, basically, almost every time you “utilize” the word utilize, you really should have been using “use.”

Utilize does have a specific meaning, though, and there are times when it’s correct to use it. It’s when you have some resource which may not be fully employed or consumed for full effect. For example, doctors can speak about oxygen utilization in the bloodstream, or iron utilization that is maximized through the appropriate level of vitamin consumption. Meaning, in other words, the level to which a particular resource is being consumed. Utilize come from the French utiliser, meaning “useful.” So you could certainly say that we do not utilize our tools well, meaning you don’t take full advantage of them; that would be semantically different than we do not use our tools well, which implies that you’re using them wrong.

But I’d normally just stick with use, and say something like, we do not use our tools to their full capability, or we do not use our tools efficiently. Anytime you catch yourself using utilize, see if you can rephrase it. You can almost always make the sentence simpler and clearer. Were you to write, we utilize Active Directory poorly, a phrase I have seen, then I might wonder WTF you’re talking about. Are you not taking full advantage of the technology, or are you employing it incorrectly? Or, just, “z?”

Now, look, nearly every dictionary you can point to will not fully back me up on this, because most treat utilize as a synonym of use. And to be sure, for most of the word’s history, that was true – again, look at what it meant in the original French version. Outside the US, even, conventions on utilize differ. But there’s another big reason in the tech industry, in particular, to be wary of utilize, and it has nothing to do with grammatical correctness: ESL. Speakers who learned English as a second (or third, or whatever) language may not always parse utilize as correctly and as consistently as use. And our industry is full of people who came to English later in life. If the purpose of communication is to accurately convey an idea, then we should strive as much as possible to use the most universally understood words we can. Rather than “jazzing up” language to sound smarter, consider going “plain vanilla” as much as possible. Simpler words, simpler grammar, and simpler sentences help other people understand what you’re saying more accurately and more quickly.

We use the tool to make hiring people easier.