Years ago, when I was a young college freshman, I took a course that forever changed my life. That course was Journalistic Writing and Editing.
It was a small class; there were only twelve of us on a good day. Because of our number – I presume – we met in a classroom just slightly bigger than a broom closet and almost as dark. The closeness of the room made for lively conversation, strangely enough. Twelve strangers trying to avoid touching each other out of politeness, but feeling the electric charge of intimacy nonetheless. It felt as if we were tucked into a back corner of a college bar, squeezed into a too-small booth, laughing nervously at one another’s jokes, wondering about our hookup potential.
Our professor was a lively man of about fifty, grey haired, bespectacled, with leather elbow patches on his sport coats – the quintessential college prof. Engaging and approachable, he was the rare teacher who enjoyed dialogue with his students. An extraordinary editor, he could turn your crappy essay into a haunting narrative with just a flick of his red pen.
In his class, I learned that newspapers and magazines wrote not only with word count limitations, but also word choice limits. When space is at a premium, short words are preferred. Long descriptive paragraphs and poetic language, so prized in fiction writing, are completely useless to a newspaper/magazine editor. Long, run-on sentences are chopped mercilessly. “Just the facts, Ma’am,” was the guiding principle.
My professor said, “Never use a long word when a short one works.”
“Never,” he said “take a simple word and make it longer just because you think it sounds smarter.”
And then, that nice man ruined my life.
He said, “Never use a word ending in -ize.” Specifically, the word “utilize.”
Utilize was his pet peeve. Now it is mine.
He couldn’t fathom why anyone would use a seven-letter word when a perfectly good three letter word (use) works. I can’t either. Long words, jargon, and buzzwords don’t make you sound smarter, he said. They make you sound insecure.
This new pet peeve didn’t affect me immediately. It wasn’t until several years after I graduated college that the word “utilize” uprooted “use” in popular media outlets. Now, I can’t read anything written by a person under age forty, because apparently, Journalistic Writing and Editing stopped being taught in journalism schools after Gen-X left the scene.
How do I know? Because utilize is everywhere. Magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, research papers, government documents, etc. Broadcast journalists, I suspect, are contractually obligated to say utilize on air at least 50 times a day. I wouldn’t be surprised if utilize is monetized.
I can’t watch the news anymore. It puts my TV in grave danger of being smashed.
Less is more, people.
Speak with confidence, not with wimpy, watered down, useless words. Understand what you mean, and say it simply. Use your words, don’t utilize them.
If my plea to your journalistic integrity doesn’t work, how about this: bigger words require too much exhalation. We exhale carbon dioxide, scourge of the planet, causer of the dreaded Global Warming.
By my calculations, if people stopped saying utilize and started saying use instead, our carbon footprints would shrink by 99%. If you stop saying utilize, you could Save The Planet.
Your children will thank you. And I can watch the news again.