To use or to utilize? -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

To use or to utilize?

by Amber Cook, Senior Writing Consultant
We've all done it. We look at our paper, worrying that it doesn't sound scholarly or academic enough, so we go through with a thesaurus function, changing the word person to individual or the word discussion to dialogue. We reread the new sentence with pride, patting ourselves on the back for our fancy-sounding sentence. What was just "The teacher asked the students to discuss the topic in groups" is now "The educator facilitated group interaction among the learners." It just sounds smarter, and we walk away feeling pretty macho.

The problem, of course, is that the fancier sentence says the same thing, but it says it with less clarity and more room for confusion. No one would question the meaning in the first sentence above, but the second sentence is a little baffling. What exactly does facilitate mean in this context? What kind of interaction are we talking about, exactly?

This is one of the tricks of learning to write academically. Many writers believe that the more advanced the vocabulary level, the better the paper. There is something to be said for using precise terminology, but that doesn't always mean using a bigger word.

In your field, you'll often use words with refined meanings to clarify a point. In my field of music, for instance, we use the word ethnomusicology to describe the study of music in the context of a culture. If I were writing a paper on the topic, it makes more sense for me to use that term as a shortcut:

I will approach this study of shape-note singing from an ethnomusicological perspective.

works better than

I will approach this study of shape-note singing from the perspective of this music in the context of its culture.

In this case, the bigger, more complex word acts as shorthand, allowing for a more concise and direct sentence.

The problem is learning how to use bigger words judiciously. If the word adds a shade of meaning that you need, go for it! If you say sob bitterly instead of cry, that's OK; the first emphasizes the depth of the sorrow, and there's good reason for the extra length. If you substitute the word utilize when you really mean the word use, however, you're not adding meaning--you're just adding syllables. The key is to know and understand the meaning of each word you are using, always using the fewest and most precise words to express your ideas. Remember that your goal is communication, so anything that acts as a barrier to your reader understanding your meaning does more harm than good.


  1. Great post. I believe Strunk and White is required reading for Walden's intro class. This little gem should be reread perdiodically until one hones their writing to a sharp edge with precise meaning. I believe Strunk and White mention the use v. utilize example specifically.

  2. You've both probably heard this one before, but I guess some fan forwarded his company's memo on to Scott Adams, Dilbert creator:

    This change will allow us to better leverage our talent base in an area where developmental roles are under way and strategically focuses us toward the upcoming Business System transition where Systems literacy and accuracy will be essential to maintain and to further improve service levels to our customer base going forward

  3. I am having difficulty finding time to have you review a paper of mine. I turned in a great one or so I thught. I even hve software that ghost reads it. it made lots of good corrections and aside from planning I got a terrible grade. 9/15 can I email this to you with her corrections and let me know what Im doing wrong.? THanks