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August 8th, 2007

Utilize / what's an ingredient?

by Barbara Wallraff

Nan Thomas, of Castleton, N.Y., writes: “Do I have to accept ‘utilize’ when ‘use’ is a perfectly good word? It comes across as pretentious, like ‘Let’s utilize the hall closet to store our winter boots.’ I do some editing for work, and when I come across the word, I always change it to ‘use’ or ‘make use of.’ It’s a pet peeve (can you tell?), and I wonder if I’m fighting a losing battle.”

Dear Nan: No, it’s not a losing battle -- at least to the extent that a sizable anti-pretension-in-language brigade stands ready to fight alongside you. We’re on the alert for a number of other needlessly fancy words and phrases too, such as “initiate” instead of “begin,” “feasible” instead of “possible,” “viable” instead of “workable,” “remuneration” instead of “pay” or “salary,” and “terminate” instead of “end.”

Unfortunately, these aren’t battles we’re likely ever to win, either. H.W. Fowler, the unparalleled British arbiter of linguistic style, poked fun at “those who feel that the use of an ordinary word for an ordinary notion does not do justice to their vocabulary or sufficiently exhibit their cultivation” -- but that was in 1926, in his book “Modern English Usage.” People who feel the same way are with us today. It’s only natural to be proud of having a good vocabulary -- and what are words for if not to use? Not until someone has acquired that vocabulary and started using it does he or she discover how much more effective -- and likable -- simple words are. The fancy words are for conveying meanings the simple words can’t. So you and I will probably have to keep crossing out “utilize” our whole lives, as new people discover it and find it impressive.

Why does “utilize” even exist, if it has no special meaning of its own? Well, it does have one: “to find a profitable or practical use for,” as the American Heritage Dictionary explains it. So “I know how to use a dictionary” means just what you’d think, whereas “I know how to utilize a dictionary” ought to mean I can think of a use for one. The only problem is, the word is hardly ever used like this -- it’s hardly ever utilized -- and no one seeing or hearing it can be expected to notice the nuance of meaning. Instead of saying “I know how to utilize a dictionary” and hoping against hope to be understood, I’d recommend saying “I could use a dictionary.”

Mary C. Ferris, of West Bloomfield, Mich., writes: “The other day my friend described a chemical that is part of a grape as an ‘ingredient’ of the grape. I told him ‘ingredient’ is not the appropriate word. We’ve been arguing about this for days. Please advise.”

Dear Mary: You are right. If you try to use dictionary definitions to prove the point, though, the two of you will just start arguing again. Please ask your friend to search for “ingredient” and “grape” simultaneously on Google or, better yet, Google News and get back to me if he has any questions.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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