May 24, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: definite or definitive & use, usage, and utilize

Posted in usage, use, utilize at 6:18 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Definite or definitive

A reader writes:

Will you explain the difference between definite and definitive? I know that when something is definite—we are positive it’s that way. But how is that different from definitive?

These two words are more and more often used as synonyms (with definitive being used to mean definite e.g., the professor has some very definitive opinions…); however, they have distinct meanings, and we should maintain the distinction. If ‘definitive’ is part of the evolution of language, it is at the beginning of its journey, and it is way too early for us to be adopting that use.

Definite means certain, clear, or exact.

I have no definite plans for vacation yet.

The scientist was definitely nearing the solution.

Definitive refers to something that is certain, too, but to a great degree. It is authoritative, and the certainty is conclusive. The definitive answer is the final answer.

 He is the definitive authority on modern dance in the US.

It is the definitive decision of the court that this law should be overturned.

It is the definitive word of this writer that ‘definite’ and ‘definitive’ should definitely not be used synonymously.

Tip 2: Use, usage, and utilize

While writing Tip 1, I had a brilliant and original idea for what to write about in Tip 2.  Instead of just writing about the difference between use and usage, I would throw in a discussion of utilize, too. Unfortunately, when I looked it up on our website, I found that I had this particular brilliant and original idea once before ( Oh well, no matter, that discussion was back in January of 2008, so I think we can revisit this now.

Let’s start with the definitions (I am not going to cover all of the definitions of these words—just the main ones:

Use can be a noun or verb. As a noun, it means the employment of something for a purpose.

The best use for our preliminary data is to inform the intervention and sample size of our future randomized controlled clinical trial.

As a verb, it means employ or put into service.

The researcher is going to use the data to determine the outcome of the RCT.

[NOTE: If you will permit me, I’d like to interrupt this tip with a tiny rant about dictionaries. It used to be that you would never see the word you were looking up used in the definition of the word. This makes sense, right? If you don’t know the meaning of the word, then making it part of the definition doesn’t help, does it? These days, I see it all the time, and it rankles. (Man, how old does that make me sound? Oh well, that ship has long since sailed.)]

Usage can only be a noun. It refers to the way something is employed or used. It can also refer to the customary way something is used. And it is often used to describe language and grammar in the way that it is actually used, regardless of the rules (as in Weekly Language Usage Tips).

An increasingly common usage among clinical researchers is the administration of online surveys for data collection.

And there is utilize. It is always a verb and means put to purpose or use. It can also mean put to profitable or practical use.

The gardener is going to utilize the rain barrel to collect water for the garden.

Unfortunately,  we can’t utilize your watering can.

Unfortunately, we can’t use your watering can.

In the first of the three examples, above, ‘utilize’ is used as ‘use.’

In the second example, we are saying that we have no use for the watering can.

In the third example, we are saying that, for some reason, we are unable to use the watering can.

Do you have the definitions straight?

Okay, what do I have to say about these words?

‘Usage’ should be used the way in which it is intended, which is to talk about the way in which something is used. It is not a synonym for ‘use’ and should not be used as an intellectual or brainy way of saying ‘use.’ It is NOT.

This is what I said last time about ‘utilize’: Utilize is over-utilized. And I stand by that. Even though ‘use’ and ‘utilize’ can be synonyms, there is NEVER a good reason to use ‘utilize’ if it can be substituted with ‘use.’ There just isn’t a reason to. It seems that like using ‘usage,’ some people think that using ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’ makes them sound smarter. But it does NOT. It just gets in the way of simplicity and clarity.

The only time to use ‘utilize’ is when you are talking about putting something to practical or profitable use.

If you can use ‘use’ in a given circumstance, then, do it.



  1. Jeff said,

    I have another question. While translating, I noticed that I was using the words “continually” and “continuously” interchangeably. Is there a difference? The dictionary definitions are really close, but I was wondering if you could provide more insight on the topic.

    • dlseltzer said,

      I will write this up for Thursday. The short answer is continuous means going on without interruption, and continual means going on with intermittent stops.

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