Email Grammar Tips: Use vs. Utilize

Nicholas Graziade

Nails on chalkboard.

A drummer who plays without rhythm.

Tests from the Emergency Broadcast System.

Let’s face it – there are some things that hit your ears and make you cringe.

And, when you’ve spent much of your life editing and proofreading, you’ll inevitably discover that there are some words people say that make the sounds above sound like Mozart or Bach.

Today, I’d like to discuss the one word in the English language that I find unequivocally cringe-worthy: “utilize.”

Utilize =/= Use

I’ll put it bluntly so that it is crystal clear: “utilize” does not mean “use.”

While common parlance suggests that these two verbs are indeed interchangeable, they are far more nuanced. Let’s take a look at their inner workings.

When can I say “use?”

“Use” is an extremely versatile verb that generally means “to employ or consume for some purpose.”

For example, you could easily say “I used three cans of paint to complete the dining room.” In this instance, “use is a transitive verb; it takes an object (the three cans of paint – the thing the verb acted on).

However, “use” can also be a noun (e.g. “the paintbrush has one use”). Additionally, it appears in several common idioms (e.g. “I can make excellent use of the extra can of blue paint”).

The verb form came to English from old French, somewhere around the 13th century. Not surprisingly, the modern French verb “utiliser” simply means “to use.”

So, when can I say “utilize?”

While “utilize” is also a transitive verb, it has a specific meaning: “to use for a practical, meaningful, or otherwise beneficial purpose.”

And, while this may make it seem like a wonderfully versatile verb as well, there are really only two commonly-accepted uses:

  • Chemical Reactions: Scientific papers often contain research about how certain elements affect other processes. “The chemical inhibitor prevented the protein from properly utilizing the additional phosphorus.”
  • Management: The utilization metric frequently measures how well an organization’s strategic initiatives succeeded. “We saw a 75% increase in feature utilization by shifting resources to product adoption in Q1.”

So next time you’re contemplating whether it’s use vs. utilize, remember these tips. Your readers will thank you!

Looking for more tips on writing great marketing copy? Check out some of my posts on the best way to use verbs, who vs. whomand 5 word choices that sabotage your marketing copy.

About the Author
Nicholas Graziade

As the Documentation Architect at Informz, Nick is a technical writer, copyeditor, and grammar guru all rolled into one! When not keeping tabs on the Informz KnowledgeBase, he enjoys writing poetry, mastering the bass guitar, and reading works by famous philosophers.