Why I hate the word utilize, and how to avoid it

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Source: 20 words you should never use in a cover letter

While editing some web content for work the other day, I came across the word “utilize” – a word that makes me particularly upset. What you may ask is wrong with a mere word, one that is used in thousands if not millions of corporate emails per day, that is right at home in academic papers and engineering manuals?

For me, it’s larger than the word itself. Utilize is the perfect embodiment of what is wrong with professional writing today. Utilize signals not only that you may not know of what you’re speaking, but you’re insecure about it and feel the need to dress it up. If your goal is to engage people with what you’re writing, utilize will leave them cold.

Here’s my advice on how to avoid utilize and to engage more people with your writing:

  1. Don’t write from a place of insecurity. Believe what you’re writing, and admit uncertainty in your writing. If you can do this, you won’t feel compelled to dress up your prose with distracting four-dollar words.
  2. Do not trying to impress your audience, try to inform your audience. Your audience may have only the faintest idea about what you’re writing. Sprinkling in vague, dressed up words like “utilize,” “implement,” “impact,” “leverage,” and “interface,” will only lose their interest. I like to tell people who are struggling with professional writing–especially writing for the web–to imagine that they are talking about what they do to a friend at a party. When you’re talking with a friend, you try to select out the most interesting bits of information, you try to keep it fairly simple, and you try to get your friend to understand and even relate. You are trying to inform your friend not impress your friend. Even if you are kind of trying to impress your friend, you sure as heck aren’t using words like “utilize” to do it.
  3. Don’t feel an obligation to use a big or complicated word, especially when you are trying to replace a fairly non-descriptive verb. Although many of us learned in English class not to overuse verbs like “is,” “does,” “have,” “said,” and “use,” in professional writing, we often have to use these words. This is for a couple of reasons. Professional writing is not as florid as literary writing. And there are also many instances when one simply does not have enough detail or enough space to be descriptive. For example, if I’m writing that a government decided to expand a vaccination program, ideally I have enough detail to write something like the following:

The government has decided to expand their new vaccination program. To do this, they are building 55 more healthcare clinics across the country, hiring hundreds more nurses, and delivering flyers to citizens who live in rural areas to inform them about the clinics, and sending texts to people on their mobile phones.

However, I may not know this much detail about the program. So I might simply write: 

The government is expanding the vaccine program. 

I should however resist any urge to write: 

The government is implementing an expansion of the vaccine program.

Shudder. If you have a verb that offers little, it should be unobtrusive.

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Unfortunately, one of the major reasons why professional writing can be so bad, so filled with utilizations and implementations, is because people are sometimes trying to dissemble. They dress up what they’re saying because, as I alluded to above, they don’t know what they’re saying, but they feel they must look like they do know what they’re saying. That is of course one way to get through life, but it seems unsatisfying. My advice: don’t try to dress what you’re saying up in a suit if there’s no substance behind it.