Sunday, December 1, 2013

Using 'utilize': What the mavens say

"You use a tool for its intended purpose; you utilize it for a different purpose," Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) tweeted a few days ago. She added an example: "Tom uses a hammer to pound nails; Sam utilizes a hammer to crack walnuts."

I was perplexed by this rule, partly because the walnut-cracking sentence seemed so unidiomatic and partly because after nearly 30 years as an editor, I rarely meet a brand-new usage rule. I tweeted back: "Seriously, this is a thing?" (I thought it might be a joke.)

But Erin is a cogent usage writer and a working editor, not a collector of zombie rules and usage whims. She wasn't making it up; clearly the rule was out there somewhere. So I set out to search the web and my shelves of usage literature. 

My conclusion in brief: Yes, this is a thing, the idea that utilize and use have neatly distinct senses. But it's not a very widespread thing, and I don’t think it’s going to catch on.

I checked a few 19th-century usage books and a few more 20th-century sources (see list below), and the notion that utilize can mean, essentially, "repurpose an object made for something else" did pop up eventually, in the mid-20th century. 

The first suggestion of it -- not a clear statement, but a hint -- appears in Bergen and Cornelia Evans's Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, published in 1957. "Utilize implies a practical or profitable use and, in its stricter sense, making a practical or profitable use of something when something else more desirable is not available," they write. "More desirable" could certainly be understood as "more appropriate to the task."  

A few years later, Sir Ernest Gowers mentions the distinction in his edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965) -- but only to say it's obsolete. 
If differentiation were possible between utilize and use it would be that utilize has the special meaning of make good use of, especially of something that was not intended for the purpose but will serve. But this distinction has disappeared beyond recall; utilize is now ordinarily treated as a LONG VARIANT of use. 
 Wilson Follett, in Modern American Usage (1966), lists utilize under the heading "needless words." He thinks utilize could just disappear, but he concedes a wisp of the extra sense Gowers noted:
The occasions when use will not do are so rare as to be inexistent for the workaday writer. … If a nuance must be found to distinguish between the pair, it lies in the stronger suggestion utilize gives of turning an object or a material to purposes it was not meant for.
I found a few more references to the "repurpose rule" on the web: The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988) is quoted as saying "There is some excuse for utilize in the sense of 'put to unexpected practical use' (utilize an old bathtub as a drinking trough)." Another site quotes "Getting the Words Right" by T.A.R. Cheney (1983): "When you utilize something, you make do with something not normally used for the purpose; e.g., you utilize a dime when the bloody screwdriver is nowhere to be found." Also, a couple of readers of the Grammarphobia blog have cited the rule (though blogmeisters Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman seem not to have heard of it).

But there's no mention of utilize="repurpose" before the 1950s, and that's a puzzle. Why would such a rule emerge in the mid-20th century, 150 years or so after utilize came (from French) into English? If utilize was such a problematic word, how did it escape the notice of the late-19th-century and early-20th-century word mavens, British and American, who obsessed over an ever-expanding list of language peeves? 

One explanation is that utilize (like other newly adopted words) only attracted the usagists' notice once it became fairly widespread. (See Google Ngram chart below.) Also, utilize may have been migrating into general use from the scientific/technical vocabulary, a sure way for a word to attract hostile attention.


In most of the usage literature, though, utilize is simply shunned as pretentious. Some authorities concede that it is a subset of use with its own special flavor, but it isn't the "repurpose" flavor: They allow utilize "only when it has the meaning 'to turn to practical use or account,'" says Merriam-Webster's usage dictionary. "That is, in fact, almost invariably the meaning of utilize in actual usage." 

I'd like to know who first came up with the idea that utilize means "use for a different purpose" and, even more, why anyone thought the special connotation was useful. When you're making use of something for an unintended purpose, doesn't the context make that clear? "We used our knee socks as tourniquets," for instance; how would saying utilize make the sentence more precise? 

But the real problem is the new twist in the rule's formulation -- the idea that if utilize means "repurpose" it can only mean that, and plain old use can never mean that. 

That notion was not part of Gowers's or Follett's analysis, and it's easy to see that it leads to nonsense. Are we really supposed to say only "he utilized a hammer to crack nuts," and never "he used a hammer"? "They utilized a credit card to jimmy the door"? "She utilized my Sharpie for eyeliner"? Nobody seriously thinks that's a rule of English usage, right?

Certainly not the copy editors I know. When I worked on a features desk with nine others, occasionally one of us would report seeing the department head using a paper clip to clean his ears. Not one of my deskmates ever suggested we really ought to say, "Eww, he's utilizing a paper clip in his ears!" 


Sources consulted, by date of publication: 

Fitzedward Hall, Modern English (1873). Hall reports that the Edinburgh Review of 1809 took exception to utilize (then newly adopted). But Hall finds the word "both useful and readily intelligible."

Frank Vizetelly, A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1907): No mention of use/utilize.

H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (1926): Mentions only the spelling of utilization.

Eric Partridge, The Concise Usage and Abusage (1954): No mention of use/utilize.

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957). "Utilize implies ... in its stricter sense, making a practical or profitable use of something when something else more desirable is not available." (See text above.)

Theodore Bernstein, Watch Your Language (1958): No mention of use/utilize.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (1959). No mention of use/utilize.

Roy H. Copperud, A Dictionary of Usage and Style (1964): No mention of use/utilize.

Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965): No mention of use/utilize.

Sir Ernest Gowers, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2nd ed., 1965): "This distinction [between utilize and use] has disappeared." (See text above.)

Wilson Follett, Modern English Usage (1966). "Utilize [suggests] turning an object or a material to purposes it was not meant for." (See text above.)

Theodore Bernstein, Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971). No mention of use/utilize

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (3d ed., 1979). "Utilize. Prefer use."

Britannica Book of English Usage (1980): "Not completely interchangeable … Use, the more general term, can always be substituted for utilize."

Harper’s Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed., 1985): No mention of use/utilize.

Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, The Complete Plain Words (3d edition, 1986); revision of Sir Bruce Fraser’s 2d edition (1973) of Sir Ernest Gowers’s first edition (1954). Utilise: "The simple word use will almost always serve."

Kenneth Wilson, Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993): Utilize "is a synonym (and often a pretentious euphemism) for the verb use."

Merriam-Websters’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). (See text above.)

R.W. Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996): "A case can be made out for utilize when the required sense is 'to make practical use of, to turn to account.' The boundary is nevertheless a murky one." 

Random House Mavens’ Word of the Day, 1998: "Utilize does have its own meaning: 'to turn to profitable use; to make a practical use for.' This is not the same sense as 'to bring into service', which is what use fundamentally means."

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (4th ed., 1999): "Prefer use." Also, under –ize: "Why say 'utilize' when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?"

Larry Trask, Mind the Gaffe  (2001): Utilize "is not just a fancy word for use. … The word means 'put to a useful purpose (something that would otherwise be wasted).'" (Trask is the only maven I've seen who gives this "would otherwise be wasted" sense.)

American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005): "Utilize often emphasizes the practical or profitable way in which something is used, and the word appears frequently in contexts in which a strategy is put to practical advantage or a chemical or nutrient is being taken up and used effectively."

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009): "use; utilize; utilization. Use is the all-purpose noun and verb, ordinarily to be preferred over utilize and utilization. Utilize is both more abstract and more favorable connotatively than use." 

10 comments:

John Cowan said...

The OED2 (as of 1926) says:

1. trans. To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.

Rare before 1858. ‘Utilize is fast antiquating improve, in the sense of “turn to account”’ (1873 F. Hall Mod. Eng. 167).

1807 J. Barlow Columbiad ix. 348 [To] Improve and utilise each opening birth, And aid the labors of this nurturing earth.

1824 Westm. Rev. Apr. 454 Izmail and Kilia..are respectively able to nullify or to utilize the northern mouth of the Danube.

1860 J. Ruskin Mod. Painters V. 333 Let all physical exertion..be utilized.

1882 E. R. Pitman Mission Life in Greece 123 Her services could not be utilised for missions.

So you can see that as of the 19th century, the sense was that of utile 'useful, profitable, advantageous' plus -ize, and so it meant 'convert something to a use that it did not have before', not merely 'make use of'. I think the 20th-century peeve is descended from a faint memory of this.

Clearly when the OED3 gets to this word, they'll add the modern sense 'use' and probably mark this sense obsolete.

empty said...

Did Wilson Follett ("... so rare as to be inexistent for the workaday writer") have a thing about "nonexistent"?

John McIntyre said...

I also dimly recall Mr. Cowan's sense of "use to advantage" from some piece of usage advice thirty or forty years ago.

ErinBrenner said...

I agree that "use" can be used in the "utilized" sense. My complaint is generally when an author overuses "utilize" when "use" would work just fine and sound pretentious.

I've never done the research, though, and I'm glad you did. Perhaps this is a zombie rule. If so, I may use it sparingly with writers who need to sound less pretentious.

Bryan M. White said...

The wife and I had a long conversation about this the other day. She insisted that "utilize" has a valid meaning distinct from "use." Meanwhile, I've always maintained that "utilize" is an overused, possibly pointless, word that's mostly used to make things sound more important.

After hashing it out, we pretty much decided that "utilize" DOES have a distinct meaning: "to make something useful" or "to make use of" (which were go along with the "re-purposing" interpretation to some degree.) However, the distinction this makes between "utilize" and "use" (shifting the emphasis slightly to how you turned something to account rather than what you did with the thing) is so subtle that it's nearly irrelevant in almost all situations. After all, doesn't "We utilized the field for our game" and "We used the field for our game" pretty much amount to the same thing in the end?

In other words, like most good arguments, it ended with us both being right ;D

Bryan M. White said...

Speaking of my wife, we also had a discussion the other day about the phrase "gives one pause." She didn't understand what it meant, and she was surprised and actually even a bit disappointed when I explained it. She said that it sounded like it meant something more than that. I told her that that was because of the odd way it's worded. It seems like it would be more natural to say, "It makes one pause." Using "give" not only turns "pause" into a rather awkward noun form, but it's also kind of weird to imagine it as something being given by the situation.

Maybe you could shed some light on this. It sounds almost like something archaic which has persisted for some reason. Or could it be a foreshortening of the phrase "gives one reason to pause"?

John Cowan said...

Pause as a mass noun meaning 'intermission, delay, waiting, hesitation' has been in the language for some six centuries, and is sense 6 in the OED3. The OED's quotations show such examples as without pause, on further pause, after some pause, a few moments of pause, no time for pause, working without pause, opportunity for pause, the most recent from 1991.

The specific phrases take pause 'stop, hesitate' and give pause 'cause to stop or hesitate' are also specifically mentioned. Take pause, it seems to me, is analogous to take food 'eat', take drink 'drink', and similar phrases. Plainly, what you take for yourself, someone else may instead give you.

Richard Hershberger said...

"But the real problem is the new twist in the rule's formulation -- the idea that if utilize means "repurpose" it can only mean that, and plain old use can never mean that."

I don't know the details of this specific case, but the pattern is well established among language peevers. They are very uncomfortable with the situation in which Usage A is a subset of Usage B. They much prefer that Usage A and Usage B be distinct, preferably thereby making some subtle distinction that they assure us is absolutely vital to clear writing, the history of the written English notwithstanding. They will enthusiastically assert such a distinction even absent any factual basis. The possible examples are legion: Consider the purported that/which distinction, or masterful/masterly.

empty said...

Merriam-Webster online gives as one noun sense for "pause":

5 : a reason or cause for pausing (as to reconsider) [a thought that should give one pause]

This seems wrong to me. It looks like an effort to account for the expression "give one pause" by guesswork.

Bryan M. White said...

Thanks guys.

I just want to say, for the record, that I am well aware that "pause" CAN BE a noun. I was just saying that it strikes me as awkward noun in that particular phrase. Not INCORRECT necessarily, just awkward: the idea of a "pause" as THING being given out by the situation. To me, it just seems much more smoother and simpler and direct to say, "It made me pause." But that's me.