Three Words I Always Look for When Editing (need, which, utilize)

Want versus Need imageThere are three words that I search for (and often edit) when reviewing a document. Even before skimming or reading a document, I often search for these words to get a flavor of the quality, tone, grammar, and formality of the writing. If you read, write, listen, or edit, you probably see, hear, or edit these three words quite a bit.

The three dirty words are:

1. Need, Excessive Neediness

Need is probably the most tortured and abused word in the English language. It’s dropped almost everywhere. And dropped inappropriately, I must add. I call it Excessive Neediness. There are two rules that I follow when looking at need.

  1. Only animate objects have needs. Non-living objects cannot possibly have needs.
  2. Political or emotional use. Used as an emotional or pleading-type of appeal.

A poorly crafted email message says that this project needs to be completed by the end of the week. Interesting. Projects have needs. Didn’t know that!

A biased newspaper article may explain that a certain agency of the government needs more of our money in the form of higher taxes in order to…

2. Which Versus That

My experience is that writers and speakers often use which when they should use that as the relative pronoun. In section 5.202 of my Chicago Manual of Style, I find that that is “used restrictively to narrow a category or to identify an item.” “Which is used non-restrictively – not to narrow a class or identify an item – but to add something to an item. “Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition (e.g., the situation in which we find ourselves). Otherwise it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash.” The confusion usually arises when which or that are used as relative pronouns to introduce adjective (or relative) clauses. The rule of thumb, is that which clauses are nonrestrictive (nonessential to the meaning of the sentence) while that clauses are restrictive (essential to the meaning). Note that rules and customs in British English may be different.

I think that writers want to be more formal, or appear to have given their writing more thought. They think that which lends their writing a little more formality.

This article from Get it write online gives a good explanation and a few examples. There are certainly many examples…

3. Utilize Versus Use

Utilize is a fussy non-word in my book. It doesn’t add anything to a sentence that use doesn’t already handle. Instead of utilize use use, or better yet, an even more descriptive and accurate verb or sentence structure.

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