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Tangibilitate Your Utilization Potential

A character in a book I’m reading right now uses a nasty sort of corporate speak in which he actually…

Photo by flickr user pagedooley

dime

Photo by flickr user pagedooley

A character in a book I’m reading right now uses a nasty sort of corporate speak in which he actually says things like “tangibilitate your utilization potential” and frequently utters “use” and then corrects self-consciously to “utilize.” He’s trying to use big words to sound smart, and the result of course is that he sounds foolish.

Thankfully, not too many of us go quite as far as this character, but it’s not too uncommon for us to substitute words or phrases that strike us as fancier or smarter for simpler ones. And “utilize” for “use” is one of these common substitutions. But what’s the difference exactly? First I’ll quote Garner on the matter:

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

Frankly, the last part of that distinction is a little vague to me and not very, well, useful. I have seen some more helpful definitions that try to explain the nuance, though, and they seem to agree that “utilize” is appropriate when you’re putting to practical use something not typically used for the particular purpose. So while you would use a screwdriver to mount a switch plate to the wall, in the absence of a screwdriver, you might utilize the edge of a dime. I think that in general, it’s probably better just to stick with “use.” Else you risk being guilty of puffery, which David Foster Wallace bluntly describes in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus in an entry on use/utilize (which I cribbed from here):

This is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. Rather, using utilize makes you seem like either a pompous twit or someone so insecure that he’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart… What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “Formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

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  1. This is excellent. Sadly so called ‘corporate talk’ is not as rare as we might hope. I hear it daily. How about this: ‘We agree to disagree’, or ‘With all due respect, may I please point out that, in the interest of increasing the capacity of your proposed …’ believe it or not those are the real sentences from the real corporate correspondence.

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  2. Thanks for the reminder…I catch myself using utilize sometimes and it always sounds more stuffy. If I’m careful and edit before I post, it’s one word that I try to expunge! :-) – Cathy

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  3. What a great reminder for those pretentious phonies who think tossing around some big words makes them look intelligent. Love the expression “puff word”.

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  4. “Tangibilitate Your Utilization Potential” = make yourself useful. Reminds me of the late Chicago politician Harold Washington, who became nationally famous for ridiculous use of unnecessary big words…

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  5. The topic of this post makes me think of the paper “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” by Danny Oppenheimer (a Google search of the title should give you a PDF of the paper). The idea of the paper is similar to what you mention: big words risk readability for apparent intelligence. Simple will get the message across easily (a screwdriver is much better for screwing than a dime).

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  6. The University where I work uses a supply of envelopes with “Utilize all spaces” across the top for mailing things across campus. Someone emphatically blacked out the word “Utilize” on the top of one such envelope and wrote “use” underneath. It made me smile.

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  7. I love this. I have a friend who is an author and gave a similar piece of advise about the word “that”. He recommended proofing with an eye for this word before publishing. I could not believe how many times I found it in a 3000 word article.

    I’ll be looking for “utilize” from now on too.

    Thanks!

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  8. Might I asseverate my uttermost gratification inasmuch as this contribution to the blogosphere efficaciously communicates an essential principality?

    (Washing my mental mouth out….)

    Great post!

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  9. ‘Tangibilitate Your Utilization Potential’..?! NO WAY!I am not bothering with this. Hey wait, what’s beneath that? ‘He’s trying to use big words to sound smart, and the result of course is that he sounds foolish.’ OH YES! Totally understand THAT!

    I understand you it’s essential, vitally and philanthropically, to adhere to common sobriquets more often and less seldom than utilizing articulate and though elemental but surreal dialogues, because then after all what is the… the.. utility?

    Kudos. :D

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