Grammar Gremlins: Pesky Pairs Part 3

When the Grammar Gremlins run out of ideas, they look in my notebook. This month they’ve found more sets of easily confused words.


gremlin-2Utilize is not just a fancier or more elegant version of use. It actually has a rather specialized shade of meaning: we utilize something for other than its original or basic purpose. We use a table knife to cut our food; we might utilize the same blunt knife to turn a screw or pry open the kitchen junk drawer. As long as we’re doing this one in the kitchen, we’ll use a frying pan to cook dinner, but if someone complains about the food, we might be tempted to utilize the same pan as a weapon.


Note that use, the older of the two words by several centuries, can serve in any situation: feel free to use that knife on the recalcitrant drawer or the frying pan on the ungrateful diner. Just don’t utilize a knife and fork for eating or a frying pan for cooking.


While researching this pesky pair (yes, I really do that, using both books and on line sources), I ran across an interesting reversal of sorts that I hadn’t thought of. To use a person often implies manipulation, something not at all in that person’s interest and hardly an original purpose. On the other hand to utilize a person simply means to give her a new job or purpose (maybe even with a promotion or a raise). John used Mary to score points with her wealthy father. Anne utilized a crew from the warehouse to set up the meeting room.


Perimeter and parameter are easily confused: they sound alike, look alike, and their meanings have even come to overlap a bit. The best distinction I’ve found is this, from “Parameter is a limit that affects how something can be done, and perimeter is the outline of a physical area.” Parameter is widely used in math and science, while perimeter has technical meanings in the military and in (a surprise to me) basketball. If you think of perimeter as physical and parameter as intellectual, you should be able to keep your boundaries under control.


The Gremlins have mentioned discreet (careful, cautious, under the radar) and discrete gremlin-3(separate, distinct) in a previous column, but I still checked discreet before I used it in an email this morning, so here they are again.


And one more, for fun. Although concrete and cement are used pretty much interchangeably (at least as far as floors, foundations, and mobster overshoes are concerned), cement is actually an ingredient in concrete, which is the finished product. In other uses the two words are easily distinguished: If Jane Writer can find a concrete solution to that truck-sized hole in her plot, it will cement her relationship with her editor.


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