"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
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
is the all-purpose noun and verb, ordinarily to be preferred over utilize
is both more abstract and more favorable connotatively than use