Aaron Gerds, MD
Deputy Director for Clinical Research, Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute
Associate Professor, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University
In the Marvel blockbuster Doctor Strange, the Ancient One advises, “Measure your next words very carefully, Doctor.” This is sage advice for us all. While non-verbal cues are a big part of communication, the words we select when communicating are of the utmost importance. For example, if you say pop rather than soda when asking for your next carbonated beverage, you will give away your Upper Midwest tendencies. It may be an unnoticed substitution, but it can relay a lot.
As the staff of ASH Clinical News, or any one I have written a paper with for that matter, will tell you, there are a few words I avoid at all costs. Standing proud atop the list is the word utilize.
Why should you refrain from using this word in everyday medical writing? Here is my take (deep breath):
Wilson Follett, in Modern American Usage (1966), harshly places utilize in the bin of “needless words,” and for Kenneth Wilson in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) utilize “is a synonym (and often a pretentious euphemism) for the verb use.” Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) also tells us that “use is the all-purpose noun and verb, ordinarily to be preferred over utilize and utilization.” Gardner then adds that utilize is more abstract than use as well.
Ahh . . . that’s therapeutic.
What started out as a small idiosyncrasy for me has now grown into a full-blown affliction. In a Pavlovian act while editing papers, I’ll change utilize to use and try to rationalize my near irrational distain for the word with comments in the margin – of course, making light of my neurosis and ending it all with a smiley face emoji. Almost every time, the author will send along a reply stating that they are now one of the converted and vow “not to utilize the word again,” followed by a returned smiley face emoji. My distain for it is also well-known to my family. Every time a color commentator utters the word during a sports broadcast, my wife quickly turns to see if this will be the time that my head finally explodes.
I realize that there are some instances where the word is unavoidable. There are some definitions in biology that refer to the use of something for which it was not originally intended, the so-called repurpose rule. Bergen and Cornelia Evans’ Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) notes, “Utilize implies a practical or profitable use and, in its stricter sense, making a practical or profitable use of something when something else more desirable is not available.” Also, in the realm of health economics outcomes research, the term health care resource utilization is firmly entrenched.
Utilize is not the only offender — there is plenty of room on that boat. The word novel serves as a first mate to utilize. Why not just say new? Novel is something that is not only new but also unique, never seen, heard, or even thought of before. That is a high bar to get over. In medical writing, novel is often used to establish some time order, and new will do that job quite well. More importantly, do we even need to establish that something is new? When someone is reading the paper five or 10 years from now, will it still be new? I also place recently in novel’s company for the same reason, maybe as quartermaster on the SS Bad Word.
It is not so much the words themselves, though. The bigger issue to me is why they were selected in the first place. Why do we not just say use instead of inflating to utilize, especially during abstract season where use could provide valuable breathing room over utilize when the character count is tight? It could be that these buzz words are tossed out to us from the podiums of medical conferences and may be implanted in our brains as we read our favorite medical journal. Just by hearing these words over and over, they may sneak subconsciously into our lexicon.
It may be that we want people to view what we are communicating in a more positive light. Garner, after telling us that use is preferred over utilize goes on to say that utilize is “more favorable connotatively than use.” If it has a more favorable connotation, no wonder it has crept into the lingo of medical communication.
Conceivably, the use of superfluous words is driven by the intense pressure to get an edge and stand out from the pack. Or functioning more like verbal armor, it defends against the arrow-like questions hurled from congress audiences and the infamous reviewer #2 alike.
However, things are said best when said simply. Simple language can more directly relay the concept or results that are being conveyed. The point that is being made does not need to hide behind big fancy words and can speak for itself. I think the sentiments of this were best summarized in Split Second, a science fiction time travel thriller by Douglas E. Richards:
“‘Never heard that one before,’ said Blake. ‘But I like it. And I know the type. I’ve always believed that someone truly brilliant wouldn’t feel the need to show off.’ He grinned. ‘You know, would simply use the word use, rather than utilize the word utilize.’”
My advice? Be brilliantly simple.
Aaron Gerds, MD
The content of the Editor’s Corner is the opinion of the author and does not represent the official position of the American Society of Hematology unless so stated.
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