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Too precise

The Baltimore Sun

Encountering a previously unremarked usage peeve is always exciting, like the discovery in 1938 that the coelacanth, a fish long thought to be extinct, survives in the oceans. Today at Throw Grammar From the Train, Jan Freeman writes about a "rule" for the use of utilize.

The only usage advice about utilize of which I was previously aware is that it is a prissy variant of use best avoided. But my estimable colleague Erin Brenner has supplied one that neither Ms. Freeman nor I had ever heard of: that utilize should only refer to employing an object for a purpose for which it was not intended, to repurpose it.

Ms. Freeman comments: "I'd like to know who first came up with the idea that utilize means 'use for a different purpose' and, even more, why anyone thought the special connotation was useful. When you're making use of something for an unintended purpose, doesn't the context make that clear? 'We used our knee socks as tourniquets,' for instance; how would saying utilize make the sentence more precise?"

Her search through her trove of usage manuals finds glimmers of the distinction, but not enough, fortunately, to suggest that it is widespread. And she theorizes that the distinction arose as the word made its way into general usage from scientific and technical contexts in the twentieth century, drawing the usual suspicion from usage mavens.

There is perhaps a larger point to be made with this odd specimen, to see it as a representative of a regrettable tendency among editors to enforce a false precision.

Editors, particularly copy editors, are responsible for maintaining distinctions of meaning and usage. Precision in the language is one of our paramount goals. But, unfortunately, pursuit of this goal sometimes leads us to what I have called in previous posts "dog-whistle editing," the maintaining of distinctions that no one but copy editors can hear. 

Earlier in my career I was compelled by a slot editor to change half a mile to a half-mile in every instance in copy, because that was AP style. But as my learned colleague Bill Walsh and I have argued over the years, AP style says only that if you write half-mile you are to hyphenate it. To be fair to the Associated Press Stylebook,* it does not prohibit half a mile; the "rule" is no more than an arbitrary copy editor's extension, a gloss. 

As you have seen in previous posts, I have been on the warpath against distinctions that are meaningless to readers, like the over/more than distinction invented by newspaper editors, as well as the other superstitions and shibboleths current in the business. (Some of them are stilll in the AP STylebook, and I will not slacken in the effort to extirpate them.) We have too little time with the copy to waste it on false precisions. 

As promised, I plan to post about distinctions that are worth maintaining. I am assembling material and would welcome suggestions from my readers. 



*Lord knows I try.

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