Making a Case for Utilize and Impact

Making a Case for Utilize and Impact

May 19, 2020 By David Yontz

Many copy editors have a reflexive dislike of the words utilize and impact. Sure, we’re trained to detest corporate-speak, but should we, in a Newspeak-like canceling of words, always change utilize to use? Is there always a better word than impact?

In short, no.

Consider this example: The Dodgers are going to utilize Kolarek in the seventh inning.

You could change utilize to use, but the sentence would not have the same meaning. In this instance, utilize connotes that the best time to use this pitcher is in the seventh inning. There’s something about Kolarek, whether it’s his skills or it’s the fact that he’s a lefty and the three batters coming up in the seventh are also lefties, that makes him the best pitching option in the seventh. Use, in this example, might come across as if the manager isn’t putting any real thought into his decision or Kolarek is just one of several good options in the bullpen.

Utilize also connotes a sense of lying in wait or going unused. In Merriam-Webster’s entry for the word, there is this example: an old wooden bucket utilized as a planter.

A change to used there might signify that many others use old wooden buckets as planters. But I think the implication is that old wooden buckets usually go unused.

Impact faces scorn for the same reason utilize does—namely, it is overused by soulless suits—but it’s a more obviously useful word. When I recently tried to get to the bottom of the hatred for impact—because I wasn’t sure why people malign it so—the best answer I got was essentially, “It doesn’t tell us anything. Benefit or harm would be better.” Well, sometimes we don’t know whether something is beneficial or harmful, and sometimes it’s a mix of the two.

Here’s an example: The study seeks to measure how a new hospital would impact the community.

There are many factors at play here. Presumably, a new hospital would help residents of the community receive urgent medical care faster. That would be beneficial. But if it were to be built right next to houses, the resultant traffic and noise might harm nearby residents’ quality of life. So the neutral impact is a good word in this instance.

These examples are not anomalies. I could give many more.

Just because certain words are overused in corporate and government copy doesn’t mean they should be blanketly condemned.

Many of the people who disparage these words might say, “Yes, there are times when these words are appropriate. I just think they should be changed most of the time.” Yes, when you give your thoughts on Twitter, you are limited in the number of characters you can use, but the solution should not be to generalize. You should give specific examples when you condemn, or lay off these words and pick on actual errors. We editors love words, right?

Making a Case for Utilize and Impact was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

Header Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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