Utilize and Other Useless WordsPosted: November 27, 2007
Back in the days when we fledgling journalists were struggling to write leads and master the inverted pyramid, one professor took on the role of spotting useless words in our copy. “Utilize” was one of his favorite words to underline heavily with a red pencil. If that word appeared in someone’s assigned story, we could all be sure of a lecture on precision in writing during the next class.
He contended that utilize had much less impact in a sentence than the word “use,” which essentially means the same thing. A simple word is always a better choice, he said. He implied that people who favor utilize were putting on airs. Partly because of his influence, I resolved never to use that offending word in a sentence (unless, of course, it’s in a direct quote that I can’t paraphrase or in an article like this).
Another influence helps me avoid the word — one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes:
Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.
The word “use” comes from Middle English so it’s definitely old. And short. Our use of the word “use” is a lot like our use of the word “said” when we attribute statements to a speaker. It doesn’t stand out in any way, it does its job and it doesn’t get in the way of our ability to communicate the point we are trying to get across. We take it for granted. And no one thinks we’re putting on airs when we use use.
Another word topping my list of useless words is “interesting,” which is rapidly becoming outdated due to overuse. Overuse has reduced interesting to a state of valueless jargon. I cringe when I read something being described as interesting. What exactly has the word come to mean? At one time it may have had some impact, but in today’s world, it can mean different things for every person who uses it, or it can have no meaning at all. As writers, we’re in the business of using our words to touch people, to convey emotion, to impart information, but we can’t do that with weak words like “interesting.” We must choose strong, concrete words to convey meaning and emotion.
Offhand, I can think of several more words that don’t fit the concrete word category but do fit the useless category. Empower is one. It may be the most overused word in the English language. My eyes glaze over when yet another speaker tells us that we must empower women to do this or that. A television commercial assures that their cleaning tool will empower you to enjoy more free time with your family. An academic essay explains that reading can empower you to overcome cultural conditions. We’re told that hypnosis empowers us so we can lead our lives in harmony with ourselves and others. A Feng Shu web site encourages you to empower your life with your house number. Another web site implores “give us a flat tax and empower our economy.” And the list goes on. Ad infinitum. Give me a concrete word any day.
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