Zach Beauvais

Why not utilise use?

by | Mar 15, 2012 | Featured, Language, Perspective

Choosing a word with extra syllables seems like a kind of one-upmanship over drab, simpler words like: use; and do. Is this a form of snobbery even more unbecoming than non-standard, corporate English?

Such marked words display a kind of vanity that doesn’t add much value. Let’s look at utilise. Taking the definitions from Wictionery:


utilise (third-person singular simple present > utilises, present participle utilising, simple past and past participle utilised)

To make useful, to find a practical use for.

To make use of; to use.

To make best use of; to use to its fullest extent, potential, or ability.

To make do with; to use in manner different from that originally intended

Each definition here makes use of a particularly useful word in defining utilise: use.

No matter which way you look at it, utilising something means using it. So, in what way is it more preferable to utilise something, than to use it?

Utilise does bring to mind more than just “use,” but does it improve the meaning being conveyed? I think the extra little syllables draw attention to the word itself: highlighting it within your other words. I am surely guilty of choosing gilt words which draw the mind to them, but I do hope they at least make sense on their pedestals. Does it make sense to highlight the word “use” in a sentence?

“Our service utilises this new technology!”

Wouldn’t it usually be more appropriate to draw attention either to your service, or to its new technological wizardry?

A simpler, bolder:

“We use this new technology”

seems to emphasise the active nature of the statement by making the agent personal (we instead of our service), and naturally points toward the new technology.

I suppose utilising feels less active than using. If I use a stick to bash your car, the emphasis is on me, and my action of bashing with a stick. If I were to utilise a stick, it feels like I had less choice in the matter of bashing your car, and more in choosing my implement. It’s along a similar vein to choosing the passive over the active voice: your car was bashed, and I’m too ashamed to admit to being the basher.

Leverage and action follow utilise. Attacking the verb leverage has added pedantry points because that final bit at the end (the morpheme “-age”) changes a verb into a noun in English. For example, I might spill this beer and create spillage, I have never yet spillaged anything. I will leave leverage here, but you can read more about it in Gabriel Smy’s “Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?”

To action something, makes my mind contort into funny shapes trying to follow the logic. It follows utilise in its attention-seeking added emphasis, but it also feels like a completely wrong-fit for any sentence. Here’s how it goes for me:

Generally, language works in terms of agents, actions and objects. “I do a task” is a simple sentence in which I’m the thing performing an action on an object. Using the word “action” (which is a noun meaning “to act”), makes me wonder exactly how I’m supposed to act out the action of actioning something. If it’s a task, I could perform other actions on it (complete, delegate, begin, ignore…), but what action does “to action” imply? I’d rather just do tasks and save the mental gymnastics of attempting actively to undertake an action by actioning them. I’m sure someone better at logical reasoning than I could find a way around it, but they won’t alleviate the headache.

There is more “corporate jargon” out there (misuse of reflexive pronouns, “going forward”, “solutions”… ad nauseam), and no doubt other writers are actioning a list of words to attack, leveraging additional words and utilising blogs, tweets, and postings, so what is one more?

Well, I hope it’s shown that there are real reasons for some of us not liking the words some others choose, and to poke around a tiny bit into the details. An entire book could be written on this, and I’m sure it could be done without being bullying or entirely pedantic, but I’ve got to go now and find something to mop up the beer I just spillaged.

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  1. PaulG

    While I agree in general, I do think there are exceptions where these alternatives are appropriate.

    It is usually considered poor style, when writing in English, to reuse the same words over and over. Consequently, during the course of a paragraph you will often see synonyms of a word as the writer tries to avoid a repetitive “sound” (so to speak). Personally, I think that this is the most common use that people have for thesauri.

    I have no idea how common this is across languages. I suspect that English is one of the few languages with this idiosyncrasy, as I’ve often heard that English is unusual in that it allows so many ways of describing the same thing. For instance, the Japanese have a very specific way to say things, and have a great deal of difficulty understanding that English can say the same thing in a multitude of ways.

    • Zach Beauvais

      Hi Paul, thanks for reading.

      I think that’s a good point about repetition and vocabulary in English. English is a huge language and it’s happy to use words it’s stolen pretty promiscuously. It has amassed many more words than other languages, and it’s a shame not to use its more inspiring words.

      However, I think that some words we use regularly can be repeated quite a bit without notice. An example would be “said” which is used in virtually any report. Here’s one from the front page of today’s Guardian:

      ‘Clegg said: “I think we’ve already got an agreement Jeremy Hunt will go to the Leveson pretty quick.” Leveson’s spokesman said that Hunt’s request’

      In that short story, “said” appears 9 times. Unless the reporter uses something more evocative—’Clegg exclaimed: “I think…”‘—the emphasis is on the content of the quote.

      I think this applies to words like utilise and “to action” in a similar way. We can avoid repetition by using fascinating phrases where the content is interesting without utilising jargon that highlights what simply isn’t.

      I used the word “use” 6 times above.

      • PaulG

        While I agree to an extent, I also think that it depends on context. Newspaper articles are written with an emphasis on economy of language. Overly elaborate vocabulary should be eschewed in that context, even at the expense of occasional pleonasm. However, for an essay or a novel there is an expectation of some embellishment. If a novelist were to use the word “said” every single time (perhaps interspersed with “asked” where appropriate), then I would find the writing very flat.
        Personally, I’m not a fan of “utilise” in either written or spoken english. Similarly, “orientate” annoys me quite a bit, when “orient” means exactly the same thing. They both remind me of the “corporate jargon” that you referred to, though I find your other complains, along with the verbing of nouns to be far more egregious. The latter seem like an attempt to sound sophisticated in the use of language, while actually demonstrating the opposite. In that sense, I’m a little more forgiving of the use of words with historical acceptance such as “utilise”, and more upset with terms like “to action”.

        That said, disgust at the abuse of language is a losing battle. Languages (especially English) evolve, as they must. After all, we regularly discuss ideas today that 50 years ago could not have been conceived of. The purpose of language is to communicate, so whatever the majority hold to be acceptable is really what a language has become. I just find it frustrating to watch it go in a direction that is unnecessary (due to existing vocabulary and grammar) and annoying (in the way it breaks existing structure and rules, while pretending to be more urbane). Blog posts like this one are great for helping me to vent some of that frustration.  🙂

      • PaulG

        Before I forget, I also meant to make another comment about using vocabulary to avoid repetition.

        If we think about a process of writing where a thesaurus is used to avoid repetition in a revisited concept, then it occurs to me that we can reverse that procedure to work out what a passage is discussing. If each word is mapped to all of the thesaurus “word groups” it appears in, then a paragraph can be mapped into a histogram of these groups. Each group of words in a thesaurus loosely describes a concept, so a histogram like this would describe the concepts referenced by the paragraph.

        Of course, some of the meanings that show up are irrelevant, since words can have very different meaning in different contexts. However, this is where the english avoidance of repetition helps us. While individual words may have different meanings in different contexts, their synonyms won’t usually share the same set of meanings. So the unintended concepts should not show up very often (unless the same word is being overused), while the intended semantics should appear as a spike in the histogram.

        While not a particularly precise method of detecting meaning in a document, it would nevertheless be easy to do, and potentially useful for comparing large groups of documents for ideas that are common.

        I got the idea for this about 10 years ago while learning about indexing video systems (these indexes are usually built with vectors in a similar way). I always meant to implement it, but it’s stayed on the back burner for a long time. Perhaps it’s time to try it out and see how effective it is.  🙂

      • ITooHateUtilise

        Have you ever read Hemingway?

        • Zach



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