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Don't get me started on 'use' versus 'utilise'...

By Richard de Grijs | Sept. 25, 2023  | Research writing Opinion

Earlier in my career, I spent a few years freelance copy editing news articles approved for publication in the SPIE Newsroom collection. We were given clear instructions as to how to ensure clarity and conciseness, as you would expect, but one recommendation stood out:

  • Replace any and all instances of ‘utilise/utilize’ by ‘use’.

Note that I will use the British spelling utilise in this post, on the understanding that it can also be correctly spelt with a -z- instead. That latter spelling is declared correct for British use by the Oxford English Dictionary, and it is the form most commonly found in US English.

Keep things as simple as possible, and let the science do the talking.

Keep it simple

As a junior researcher in the physical sciences, I had always found it odd when people included the word utilise in their papers, as if they wanted to sound grander and make their research appear more important than warranted. From an early stage during my scientific training, my research group’s mantra was to keep things as simple as possible, and let the science do the talking for you.

Now that I have become a senior scientist, I still religiously stick to that mantra, and I have developed a healthy (?) dose of aversion to the ‘U’ word. In fact, I still edit it out of my students’ writing… In most cases, use is shorter, simpler and makes your writing sound less pretentious.

A growing aversion, but is it justified?

But is my dislike warranted? Is it actually wrong to employ utilise when use would suffice? Let us look at a few definitions of both words, as found in some of the most authoritative online dictionaries (although that is, of course, a bit subjective):

  1. The trusty Oxford English Dictionary declares that utilise means "to make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account"; its definition of the verb use is "to put to practical or effective use, esp. as a material or resource; to utilize."
  2. Next, Merriam–Webster Online agrees on the definition of utilize: "to make use of; turn to practical use or account". Its database contains numerous definitions for use. However, the closest for our current purposes is "to put into action or service; avail oneself of".
  3. Finally, the Cambridge Dictionary Online barely distinguishes between utilize ("to use something in an effective way") and use ("to put something into your service for a purpose").

And although not all of these definitions explicitly state that use and utilise may be synonyms, that is all but implied in most cases.

Why you might want to reconsider embracing utilise

Yet, the internet as a crowd-sourcing platform doesn’t necessarily agree with any of this. In fact, it is easy enough to find numerous proponents of use/utilise as a pair of synonyms. Likewise, many other commentators disagree and point out that one should only resort to utilise if use other than for an originally intended purpose is meant. You might find it interesting to consider the arguments put forward by either side; see here, here or here, for instance.

It is clear that we won’t be able to reconcile such disparate opinions any time soon, but that shouldn’t be our goal in any case. The English language is alive, and that is great. Use or utilise it as you see fit, and I won’t even mark you down for incorrect grammar if you happen to be a student in my class.

Scientific writing is meant to convey complex ideas and novel results in the clearest and simplest way possible.

However, do consider the consequences of your desire to sound cool and, perhaps, important: I tend to get annoyed when I come across a liberal sprinkling of utilise in someone’s writing—and when I am annoyed, I may not pay as much attention to your narrative as you may have wanted me to.

Scientific writing is meant to convey complex ideas and novel results in the clearest and simplest way possible. Don’t go overboard by also attempting to sound pretentious. Your results might be ground-breaking and exciting beyond words; yet, I’d rather not utilise the 'dislike' button in my social media feed because I got annoyed beyond reason...

Richard de Grijs is an academic and journal editor with more than 25 years of experience in the physical sciences. In March 2018, he joined Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), where he currently is a Professor of Astrophysics; in July 2023 he commenced an additional 25% appointment as Executive Director of the International Space Science Institute–Beijing. Richard is an AuthorAID Steward and INASP Associate. He presently serves as Managing Editor of the News section of the AuthorAID website.


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