Marketers: Are you overusing “utilize”?

Research shows that shorter words are better. Even highly educated people prefer shorter words that are faster to read and easier to understand. Yet content marketers still use long words that are harder to digest.

The other day I was editing some copy for a client, and I changed the word “utilize” to the word “use.” It reminded me of a time many years ago, when I was standing by my Chief Marketing Officer’s desk waiting for him to approve a news release.

I watched him change the word “use” to “utilize.” I asked him why, and he replied, “It just sounds better.”

Before I could stop myself, I said, “So I’m supposed to get utilized to it?” I’m still surprised that he didn’t fire me on the spot.

The word “utilize” has become so overused that writer Christina Wang wrote a blog making fun of it.

To top it off, “use” and “utilize” have different meanings. According to the website Grammarist, “Utilize is not a fancy way to say use because it has a different meaning. Use means to consume from a limited supply or take something to achieve a result. Utilize means to use something beyond its intended purpose.”

In other words, you use a glass to drink, but you could utilize a glass to trap an insect. (Sorry, there are thousands of cicadas outside, and a few have gotten in the house.)

So, how do we marketers stop using “fancy” long words and write copy that will delight and engage our audiences? Here are three tips:

  • Choose words with fewer syllables. When writing and editing copy, look for words that have three or more syllables and shorten them. Why ambulate when you can walk? And think about it, would you rather be eliminated, terminated, or let go?
  • Know your audience.
    • Is your copy easy for them to understand? Most US newspapers write copy that is at or below the reading level of a 16-year-old. Even if you have a highly educated audience, research shows that even they prefer concise, easy-to-digest content.
    • What search terms do they use? Remember the famous airline example: Airlines advertise “low fares,” but most people search for “cheap flights.” Find out what phrases your audience uses when searching and use those in your content.
  • Remove words and phrases you don’t need. I once saw a plaque on a statue that read the person “was a phenomenal phenomenon” (I wish I was making that up). Many writers use adverbs when they want to emphasize a point, but do you need “extremely” in front of “busy” when “busy” on its own would suffice?

One of the best pieces of advice a mentor gave me was to take a break after writing my content. Then look at it again with my audience in mind, taking care to remove as many business-speak words as possible. And make sure you’re using the right word for what you mean. I use my red pen to edit my copy. My cat Iggy utilizes it as a toy.

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Marketers often write “utilize” when they mean “use.” We use a pencil to write. This cat is utilizing it as a toy. (Image by frimufilms on Freepik.)