use and utility

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 19 21:06:05 UTC 2010

A report about an interview with John Ashcroft contains a line, 'Asked
specifically about holding civilian trials for terrorists, he said
such a venue "has use and utility".' There is enough nuanced
difference between "use" and "utility", I suppose, to justify
occasional use of the phrase, but, it seems, it's become one of stock
phrases that people don't even think about any more. Like many
business, political or sports expressions, it's meaning has become
nearly vacuous. The same goes for the verbal version--"use and
utilize". Google shows MILLIONS of raw hits on each.

There is, however, slightly different structure to these searches.

The top hits for "use and utility" appear to be mostly in jargon-y
titles of professional papers:

  Opioid Analgesia: Perspectives on Right Use and Utility

  The Use And Utility of International Arbitration in EC Commission
Merger Remedies

  The Use and Utility of High-Level Semantic Features

  The Use and Utility of High-Level Semantic Features in Video Retrieval

  The Use and Utility of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs

This is not the case for "use and utilize". Here, the top hits are all
on style and usage prescriptions:

  Scientific English--Utilize and Use
Apr 22, 1999 ... Use use when you mean use, and utilize only when it's
properly used to mean--to use something not normally used.

  Writing -- How To Use "Use" Versus "Utilize" Correctly?
Mar 7, 2007 ... "Use" and "utilize" are two verbs with distinct
meanings. Don't confuse them. " Use" is to employ objects for the
purposes they were designed for. "Utilize," on the other hand, is to
employ objects for unintended purposes. Authoritative proof: The
Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb use as "to make use of
(some immaterial thing) as a means or instrument; to employ for a
certain end or purpose." But utilize is defined as "to make or render
useful; to convert to use, turn to account."

   Grammar Girl : “Use” Versus “Utilize” :: Quick and Dirty Tips ™
Now on to the difference between “use” and “utilize,” thanks to a
question from Thomas. Bonnie says that as a copy editor she often
reads fluffed up marketing material full of big words that try to make
the writer sound important or knowledgeable. She usually just changes
them to normal, unimpressive words that get the point across without
much fuss. One of these words she changes often is “utilize,” as in
the pretentious-sounding sentence “If you utilize this brand of
printer, you will go far.”

  WikiAnswers - What is the difference between the words use and utilize
What is the difference between the words use and utilize? Use and
utilize are often used interchangably, as synonyms, usually to turn a
boring one-syllable word into a fancy-sounding three-syllable word.
Unfortunately this practice has diluted the original meaning of
The real difference is "use" means what you think it means, to employ
for some purpose, whereas "utilize" means to use something for other
than its intended purpose, or to give something a purpose that it is
not normally thought to have. In other words, to give something
utility. Notice that both utilize and utility share the same root word
"util," probably latin for "purpose" or something.

It is not until ghits 23 and 27 that the advice stream is interrupted.
Only on page 4 (ghits 31-40) that it really stops.

Some blame the confusion on "hoity-toity" authors/friends. Others
blame it on the French, from whom "utilize" was "borrowed". Most just
complain about the users' ignorance. Not one mentions the fact that
the two are used together in a stock phrase, just like the
corresponding nouns (although half as many raw hits--about 4 mil vs.
about 8 mil).

Not being a prescriptivist does not mean that I cannot argue against
the logic (or lack thereof) in usage of particular phrases. Things can
still be wrong--I don't really care how many people use "could of/off"
instead of "could have", it will never make the usage correct. In this
case, I am somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, the phrase seems
redundant. On the other hand, for people who desperately argue that
the two words in the pair have deeply divergent meanings (obviously
the case if you are not supposed to replace one with the other), using
them in a pair should be perfectly normal--except, of course, if they
happen to have exclusionary meaning, and there is a case for that too.

But, for the moment, I just wanted to bring attention to it. And I am
also wondering how different the cases of "use and utilize" vs. "use
and utility" are.

[As far as I can tell, the subject has not been broached on ADS-L.]


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