‘Utilise’ is better than ‘use’…

Both ‘utilise’ and ‘use’ come to English from French, but ‘use’ has been kicking around for a lot longer. It is a 13th Century borrowing from Old French, and so was actually introduced into ‘Middle English’ – a previous stage in English’s history so different as to warrant a distinct name. ‘Utilise’ is a much more recent borrowing, dating from the 18th Century. This more recent history, along with the more explicit Frenchiness of the ‘ise’ ending, is, I suspect, what makes many people feel it indicates a higher level of education, and so generally preferable for students to use in their writing.

Some people do claim to detect a significant difference in meaning between the words, but I am sceptical. Dictionary definitions rarely substantiate this claim, and I have yet to read an identification of any nuance attaching to ‘utilise’ that is not also communicated by ‘use’. The contrast between them, then, is chiefly to do with how posh they sound, rather than any clear distinction they might mark. Indeed, even when English speakers spoke Middle English, French-seeming words sounded posher – unsurprisingly, really, when one remembers that for a good part of the period that Middle English was spoken, the folk who actually lived in the English castles spoke French. While the association of French-sounding words with sophistication and power goes right back to the middle ages, it was dramatically strengthened in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries when French cultural power and influence became globally significant, and when ‘utilise’ came on the scene. 

But when seeking to poshify oneself, one must be careful not to get caught trying too hard. This is as true of language as it is of interior décor. For the most educated types, saying or writing ‘utilise’ simply for the sake of it has long been seen as the kind of social climbing wannabe-ism that leads police officers of the ‘respectable’ working class, for example, to insist in their crime reports that the suspects ‘utilised an implement to effect an entrance into the edifice of the bank what the buggers then proceeded to rob’.

In his 1947 classic language guide ‘Usage and Abusage’, private-school and Oxford-educated Australian lexicographer Eric Partidge had this to say of utilise: “99 times out of a hundred much inferior to ‘use’…the one other time it is merely inferior”.  This was the period in which the aristocratic novelist Nancy Mitford identified a whole range of alternative, French sounding terms that were the sure giveaway of the socially anxious petite-bourgeoisie. Genuinely posh people, Mitford thought, could be counted on to say what? when they weren’t sure what had just been said to them. Unfortunate try-hards, on the other hand, would give themselves away with the French-inspired pardon. Other, similar pairings Mitford identified include toilet/loo, desert/pudding, serviette/napkin and lounge/sitting room. In each case, the ‘posher’, French-sounding version was deemed a sure sign of class inadequacy.

The days of Mitford and co may now seem long ago, but I suspect the reason so many teachers instruct their students to write utilise rather than use can probably still be located in their class origins. Most come from a similar social world to that of police officers. Until relatively recently, it was not required that teachers even attend university. Even now that they do, they generally attend the kind of universities where this sort of upper-middle class social nuance – a nuance that I think still has considerable literary power – is likely to be missed, or perhaps purposely, and quite understandably, ignored.

The use-utilise dilemma is thus something of a sociolinguistic minefield. On the one hand, I see no reason why teachers whose own background has encouraged them to see this kind of vocabulary as marker of education should be humiliated into changing their ways. But then, equally, I am not sure that they in turn should be humiliating working class (or any other class) students who cannot see why ‘utilise’ is any better when ‘use’ when they mean just the same thing. 

If we need to be careful when telling students to talk posh, we need to be equally, if not more, anxious when advising them not to talk common. There is a long and well-argued case that the correction of students’ language, while an inevitable part of education, is also inevitably ethically fraught, as it constantly risks tipping from meeting genuine needs to simple social humiliation. The no-nonsense-common-sense types, though, like to have a bit of a scoff at these concerns. They speak loftily of the importance that everyone master ‘Standard English’ – a socially neutral medium of advanced communication. It is presented as a precious gift which is to be given, and we are encouraged to celebrate those teachers who make it their business to relentlessly and ruthlessly give it.

But Standard English is not socially neutral – it is a social dialect, spoken by a socially privileged minority. This, at least, is the pretty convincingly argued position of Peter Trudgill, a world authority on the interaction between Standard English and other ‘non-standard’ dialects. He does not deny that students need to be taught about Standard English, but he makes the pretty powerful point that this has little to do with being able to write, speak or even ‘think’ clearly, or in a technical fashion. It may pain the inner snob to hear it, but the clause ‘a carp ain’t a mammal’ is as zoologically perfect as its Standard English equivalent. In so far as teachers have expertise to share with their students, it is their grasp of technical and academic vocabularies, or ‘registers’, and Trudgill pretty clearly demolishes the notion that these have any essential connection with a particular social dialect:

‘But one can certainly acquire and use technical registers without using Standard English, just as one can employ non-technical registers while speaking or writing Standard English. There is, once again, no necessary connection between the two. Thus “There was two eskers what we saw in them U-shaped valleys” is a nonstandard English sentence couched in the technical register of physical geography.’

(Peter Trudgill, 1999: Standard English: what it isn’t. In Tony Bex & Richard J. Watts eds. Standard English: the widening debate. London: Routledge, 1999, 117-128)

Trudgill is pretty no-nonsense himself when it comes to the urge to teach young people ‘how to speak’ Standard English, as if the one thing holding a young person back from saying ‘those valleys’ was their not yet having met a good enough teacher:

Standard English is a social-class dialect, and non-native speakers of the dialect are unlikely to start speaking it unless they wish to become associated with that particular social group and believe that there is a chance of doing so. If they do, they are likely to acquire spoken Standard English anyway, regardless of what happens in the classroom.’


In any case, the distinctions between Standard English and any given non-Standard dialect are usually few when compared to the way that dialect variation occurs in many other languages. Syntactically, most non-Standard constructions are to do with verb phrase formation, and occur in contexts where genuine misunderstanding is highly unlikely (‘She has took all the lollies’). Another common variation is a distinct use of function words (‘Give me them tools’), but this can also be easily managed once snobbery is put aside. Non-Standard dialects do of course include vocabulary which is unique to them but, again, these items in most cases are pretty few, and unlikely to lead to anything other than a short-lived confusion, easily fixed in the flow of spoken dialogue. In short, claims about the need to ‘speak Standard English in order to be understood’ are usually pretty inflated.

Of course, bad spoken communication does happen a lot, and schools can do something to address it. The most important lesson any child can learn is that not everyone will understand their speech as easily as their nearest and dearest do, and that it useful to have a range of strategies at hand to help them when this happens. Avoiding colloquial words (including those from one’s dialect), and speaking more slowly, are probably the most important ‘linguistic’ ones, but these are certainly less significant then other more ‘social’ elements of good communication such as active listening (using body language and short responses to encourage and reassure the speaker), good turn-taking practice, and using questions for checking for understanding (both one’s own, and that of one’s listener). In my experience, those who pride themselves on their ‘pure’ accents and ‘correct’ grammar are just as – if not more – likely to fail in these respects.

The term ‘Standard’ is also rather confusingly extended to cover the use of ‘correct’ punctuation and spelling in writing. An inability to get these right is perhaps more likely to cause genuine confusion (though less so than many suggest), and impede professional progress (though more so than is reasonable). Teachers should of course help students get better at spelling and punctuation, but the rules governing both have very little to do with how people speak. Even the most well-spoken person usually pronounces ‘of’ and ‘have’ in the same way in the sentence ‘I could have had loads of money”, and so be tempted to spell them in the same way. No matter how ‘correct’ one’s spoken syntax and vocabulary, the ability to use commas is hard, and can only be acquired through a great deal of reading, writing, and helpful feedback. The modest academic achievements of many blue-blooded Standard English speakers are testament to these facts.

Trudgill’s work reminds us of the truth that, at its heart, much of what we call English teaching shares an uncomfortable border with social engineering. There is a tension here which is periodically silenced from teaching practice, but which must be periodically fought for as a core consideration. Teachers need to be aware that a great deal of their work is shaping the way that their students talk and write, and that this process is inevitably informed by both their and their students’ social background. When vocabulary is selected and advanced simply on the grounds that it sounds elite, and other words proscribed on the basis that they don’t, many students are simply reminded that they don’t belong, and each time that this happens the broader culture of social stratification and exclusion is given one more micro-push into the future.

Indeed, the fact that words like ‘utilise’ are themselves seen as lower social status markers by those of very high-status groups serves to demonstrate how precarious and counter-productive an activity this approach to vocabulary instruction inevitably is. Education cannot be allowed to degenerate into a process whose core purpose giving all the opportunity to learn how to parrot (in many cases unconvincingly) the patois of the powerful.

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